Q&A: Mike McCurry on the 2016 Presidential Debates
Commission on Presidential Debates member Michael McCurry discusses the pros and cons of crowdsourcing questions, the role of debate moderators, and inviting third-party candidates to join the debates.
The Rethinking Debates project has updated its report on global and U.S. election debates with a look at methods used to increase civic engagement during the 2016 U.S. presidential debates. The revised report includes a new addendum and an interview with Mike McCurry, member (and former co-chair) of the Commission on Presidential Debates and press secretary for former President Bill Clinton.
In this interview, conducted in early December 2016, McCurry discusses the pros and cons of crowdsourcing questions online, the role of debate moderators, and the threshold for including third-party candidates in presidential debates. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
We started the Rethinking Debates series covering global election debates, looking for debate formats that might help increase civic engagement in the United States. But our attention was also drawn to this election cycle’s presidential primary and general election debates, which incorporated more social media and interactive platforms than ever before. From your perspective, what worked?
I think we took some important steps forward in how we engage social media around the 2016 debates, but certainly we’re not leveraging the full power of social media, or the ability of technology to engage the public in a more direct way.
We had great help from Open Debate Coalition. The great success was that some of the content that they helped generate did make it into the debates. We had specific citations of some of the material they developed, so there was some evidence that it impacted the moderators. But we are a long ways from having a true internet-driven debate that will reflect the conversation occurring on the internet and social media.
Part of me says that that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes we make the assumption everybody has access to the internet and broadband, and that they’re all conversant, and they’re all scrolling through their internet feeds all day long. But we have to remember there are significant parts of the American population that don’t have access to the internet, and don’t have a way of participating in these kinds of collective public enterprises when it comes to generating questions.
I think that’s a very important thing we have to be mindful of. We’re hoping that broadband access becomes ubiquitous, but it’s not. There are large populations, particularly rural and minority folks, who just are not part of that conversation, and to neglect their participation would be a huge misunderstanding in how democracy should work. As much as I am a huge advocate of trying to engage social media platforms more directly, I want to be cognizant of the fact that technology is not ubiquitous.
Yet there does seem to be a greater effort made at all levels to involve the public. We noticed a number of state and local debate organizers this year inviting questions for candidates via social media, or even via email or online submission forms.
We are generating more direct citizen participation in the process of engaging candidates. I think that’s hugely important. It kind of hearkens back to the days in which the League of Women Voters used to run town halls. It’s people engaged in candidate forums and things where there were actually real conversations. It wasn’t all mass-media driven.
That’s the power of social media and the internet, that it can particularize conversations through individual communities. But it can also hijack the conversation in different ways, when people are only associating with content that fits their prescribed point of view. I think we have to be very careful of how we use social media so it doesn’t trap us into thinking that what we are seeing and hearing is necessarily reflective of the larger vox populi.
A good example: The citizens’ petition process is highly effective, but not everybody in the country wants to discuss marijuana legalization. You have to be careful about balancing specific interested groups with broad general interests. I think that’s an area that we’re going to have to explore more carefully.
Some of the most popular questions on the Open Debate Coalition presidential questions platform and elsewhere addressed broader policy issues, such as climate change. What about those topics, which large segments of the public wanted to hear discussed but were never brought up during the debates?
Well, that’s a pox on the moderators and the candidates for not raising the issues. Remember that we don’t control the content of the debate. We leave the content of the debates to the moderators and the candidates.
We did not prescribe that these questions are going to be asked. They were all suggestions. As a matter of journalistic principle, the moderators insist on having editorial control of the questions, and I think that’s fair because they say, “We’re not there just to be potted plants to ask questions that someone else generates. We have to use our own editorial judgment as journalists to ask the questions.”
As long as we stick with that model in having broadcast journalists as the moderators, we’re going to face that. I think a big question going forward would be: Should we suspend the idea that there has to be a broadcast journalist as a moderator, and just say we need someone there who can help curate the questions that come in from social media?
That would be an entirely different kind of debate, and whether or not candidates would want to participate remains to be seen. But we apparently will have a president who, four years from now, if he attempts to be re-elected, would probably love to have questions on the environment from Twitter. These are the serious questions that we have to explore and think about.
What about the fact that moderators didn’t use suggested questions from students who took part in College Debate 2016? It goes to the same issue—they were under no obligation—but it seems like the Commission on Presidential Debates put a lot of effort into that initiative, and young voters spent a lot of time deliberating and voting on issues of importance. When their questions don’t get asked, is it a disappointment for you, as much as it might be for them?
It’s a disappointment, but it also served a purpose by generating conversation among all the students who might otherwise not participate in the debates, so it had the additional purpose of getting people both thinking about the debates and thinking about questions. But I kind of agree with you that if you have a platform like that, and it doesn’t produce a kind of demonstrated result, it can be frustrating for those who participated.
On the other hand, we had heard very positive things from people who said that this was a great platform to watch the debates, to get interested in the debates, to talk about the debates. If it generates more conversation, that’s an important accomplishment.
Many debate viewers lamented the decline of truth and the quality of political rhetoric. Do you have any ideas for how different debate formats might potentially keep the candidates more on topic?
I’m struggling with that even now because obviously the outcome of the election was not exactly what I would have desired. It goes back to the content is up to the candidates. It’s up to the moderator to try to regulate the time. If [the candidates’] behavior is boorish and they interrupt each other, that should inform the electorate about the character of those candidates, and they can make their judgments accordingly.
For us to step in and say we’re going to regulate and turn people’s microphones off, and insist that the candidates behave in a civil manner, then people will say, “Who are these people who are trying to regulate the debate?” These debates clearly revealed the character of the candidates and what kind of public behavior they would participate in, and we ended up with the result we did.
What about controlling or even banning the live audiences?
I think there are pros and cons to a live audience. I don’t think the live audience in any of our debates disrupted the debates themselves. That’s the important thing. They certainly were not nearly as vibrant as they were during the primary debates.
We specifically asked live audiences to not demonstrate support for one candidate or another. I look back on them and there are moments in which people applauded or cheered one candidate or the other, but I don’t think that had any real impact on the overall evaluation of what happened in the debates.
And the candidates bringing guests to the debates? Will anything change after Donald Trump brought Bill Clinton’s former accusers?
Those are usually things that get negotiated between the two campaigns. One of the interesting things, given what a contentious debate it was, was this was probably the most harmonious discussion between the two campaigns on-site at their debate locations that we’ve ever seen. I credit Brady Williamson, who was Hillary’s debate lead negotiator, and Don McGhan, the new White House counsel, who was the lead negotiator for Trump. They did a commendable job working out the logistics.
We had one little trouble, which is who would occupy the family booth during the town hall debate, and Trump tried a little sideshow that frankly the people on the ground for Trump didn’t even know about.
When CNN was reporting that Mr. Trump is bringing some guests that want to sit in the family box with him, they were, I can report, astonished by that news. They did not know anything about it. To his credit, my counterpart [CPD Co-Chair] Frank Fahrenkopf intervened and said, “That’s not going to happen.” You can imagine if me, as a former Bill Clinton guy, had said, well, they don’t want to seat Bill Clinton accusers in the family box.
We didn’t know [the outcome] until we were on stage doing our preliminary introductions, and we looked up and saw he had escorted the women into reserve seats in the audience and not tried to bring them onto the stage. That was probably the most interesting moment of the entire debate cycle.
Were there other issues?
I give [Trump’s negotiating team] high marks for the work that they did to try and make it smooth, but they always reserved the right to say, “We’ve got to clear this with Mr. Trump at the end of the day.” And by and large, they did. The only objection we heard is Trump didn’t like his microphone setting at the first debate at Hofstra because you couldn’t hear him clearly in the hall. And so we gently suggested to him it might be good for you to show up for your walkthrough and test that out.
By the way, he loves to grab the microphone. It’s kind of like part of his thing, and you can’t do it.
I don’t want to get technical, but the microphones used for the presidential debates are some of the most sophisticated, highly sensitive pieces of audio equipment anywhere in the world, and you don’t mess with them once they’re set. That’s the purpose of having a walkthrough, so that you set it exactly at the right levels for the people in the hall and for the television feed that’s going to go out to the rest of the country. The people in the hall don’t matter nearly as much as the millions of people who watch on television.
Did he show up for a walkthrough before the second debate?
Yes, he did. He actually did his walkthroughs in person, while Mrs. Clinton did not, but she had a very able stand-in for her. To my knowledge, we had no technical problems with the exception of the question about the microphone. That’s frankly a tribute to the extraordinary group of professionals that work with the Commission. We collaborate with the network pool, and their group works very well with the network engineers who are there.
It’s extraordinary that these debates actually happened after all the debate back-and-forth. There’s no guarantee there will be these debates, and nothing that requires anyone to show up. The fact that they’re now more or less institutionalized is because they’ve been very well-produced.
Other countries, particularly those just beginning to hold regularly scheduled election debates, look to the United States for insight on producing debates. Often getting all the candidates to attend a debate is a big hurdle, as we witnessed ourselves this year.
We’ve made it possible for most Americans to expect to see their candidates debate, and if a candidate tried to not participate, there would be political consequences. That’s a huge achievement, given where we were from 1960 to 1976, when there were no debates. It would be hard for me to imagine President Trump saying in four years, “I’m not going to do the debates.”
They are theoretically optional, but I think in practice it would be very hard for any major party candidate to duck these debates now. It’s kind of like the State of the Union address, or the inauguration address—it’s one of the aspects of democracy and the election of a president that people have come to expect and anticipate.
One of the things we take great pride in at the Commission is international assistance. People often say, “What do you guys do in the off years?” Executive Director Janet Brown works primarily with the National Democratic Institute, although we’ve worked with International Republican Institute on some projects as well, and we have lent technical expertise to countries that are curious about, “How do you do this? How do you work it out?”
Many of the places that they’ve given technical expertise to have state-run media, so it’s a different equation in many of those countries. But they’ve been able to walk through how we structure these debates. The fact that other countries are interested and saying, “Can we import some of this in our democratic system?”—that’s a pretty significant achievement.
Speaking of participation, this year there was a lot of pressure on the Commission to invite third-party candidates and to lower the polling threshold of 15 percent. Do you think participation by Gary Johnson or Jill Stein would have affected the political discourse one way or the other?
Why not? Was Trump going to be Trump no matter what?
Yes, and I think most Americans would find either Jill Stein or Gary Johnson on stage to be a distraction. They’d say, “Look, we want to watch Trump and Hillary. Who are these other two people, and why are they there?”
We are conscious of that, and we debated it and said, OK, well, they’re there because they got 15 percent of the vote. That means there’s some portion of the American electorate that is really responding to what they say—and that does not seem to me to be an incredibly high threshold. We had some members of the Commission who thought it might be too high a threshold, and then we had some people who thought it was too low. We stuck with the precedent of 15 percent, and since we had the historic trends to keep with the precedent, it made some sense to do that.
By the way, not disparaging Gov. Johnson, but if ever there was a year in which an alternative third-party candidate could have risen up and captured public imagination, this was the election.
The fact that Gary Johnson didn’t get the 15 percent just says something about what happened in his campaign, and it was not for lack of media attention. He had plenty of media attention. In fact, probably, the media attention he got ended his chances of getting the 15 percent.
And social media affords candidates more opportunities to build recognition and support.
I’ve been sued routinely every four years, and part of the suit is, “You deny access, because if you don’t get access to the debates, you can’t generate media coverage, and if you don’t get media coverage, you can’t get to 15 percent.”
But I think that this election cycle totally disproves that, because you’ve got direct access to millions of other Americans through social media. The answer is, you have to have a good candidate with a good strong message who can challenge the two-party system if you want to get any kind of candidate above 15 percent.
That’s something, then, that is probably not going to change in 2020?
I can’t predict that. I don’t know. I think that’s one of the many things that we’re going to look at.
One of the issues emphasized since the election is that the country is divided, with each side having its own facts and sources of information. What role or responsibility do you think debates have in bridging that divide, beyond whether a moderator should call someone out for saying something that is factually untrue? Should the debates be structured so voters develop a clearer understanding of the issues?
What we would say is, we have a single purpose, which is an educational mission to provide the best information we can to voters, so they can evaluate the leading candidates that they are seriously considering for president. It’s up to them to assess and analyze, and it’s up to the candidates to present the information that they want the voters to hear, for better or worse.
I think once we get in the business of trying to regulate content of the debates, then we are down a very slippery slope. We should not have the authority or the hubris to do that. We are a commission of 16 distinguished people, some Republicans, some Democrats, and some, frankly, I don’t know.
Our job is just to set the table so that the candidates can make the presentation they want to make to the American people. It’s not up to us to regulate content or to check their facts, or to call them out if they lying or saying stupid things. That’s for the American people to judge, and frankly, when that happens, it’s up to their opponents to do the fact-checking. That’s what the debates should be about.
Is there anything you’ve learned from looking at debates in other countries that made you think, “Here’s a great model of how a debate should be run”?
There have been some very interesting experiments done in other countries. They borrow from us, and we borrow from them. I think it was Nigeria—although Nigeria’s not the best possible example to cite at the moment—but the engagement of citizen groups in the questioning was really good.
Our experiment in the use of social media to generate questions is very primitive. Other countries have done a much better job of culling public opinion and using civic organizations to generate questions, and then they bring people in from civic organizations that are broadly representative with the same questions.
I think there’s a lot we could do on that front. Basically what we did this time was say, OK, we got some great groups who are out there. We’re going to curate questions on the open internet, and then they will feed those to the moderator. But at the end of the day, it’s up to the moderator.
There are a lot of reasons for that. Part of it is because of our relationship with the networks’ pool and the networks themselves that partly dictates that, but honestly, I think we could probably do a hell of a better job in how we engage civil society and put questions in front of the candidates. That might be a useful area for discussions if we look ahead four years.
Is there anything in particular that comes to mind for what could be done to engage the public more?
No. I just think it’s getting more reliable measures of what people really want to see asked, and then how do you translate that into the journalistic independence that a moderator wants.
That is the real challenge because good moderators are saying, “I have to be able to protect my own journalistic prerogatives. I have to be able to ask follow-ups, or to generate my own questions, or to take into account whatever is happening at that moment.” The moderators are fiercely independent and prideful of their role.
When Rep. Alan Grayson and Rep. David Jolly took part in a bipartisan primary debate organized by the Open Debate Coalition earlier this year, the journalists did a very good job of probing the issues. They asked the questions that the voters voted up, but used their own policy expertise to push the candidates beyond the initial questions. That seems like a good hybrid approach—they’re taking questions from the public, but they’re not potted plants.
That’s exactly correct, and we have gone back and forth on the whole question of the independent moderator role and the single moderator role. We had two moderators for the town hall debate, which is one where we also tried to incorporate social media and the moderators ask legitimate follow-ups based on whether or not the candidates actually answered the question. I think we could probably do a lot to perfect that format.
At [the CPD’s] end-of-the-year debrief meeting, we start to assess this and begin to ask the questions like you’re asking now. Where do we go from here, and how do we improve it? That’s a part of our conversation that keeps going every four years. But there’s good reason to keep the conversation going, because I think these things are around to stay.