Rethinking Debates Report: Post-Presidential Election Update
While the 2016 presidential debates will be remembered for upending assumptions about preparedness and the importance of facts, they might also be noteworthy for the integration of technologies and platforms designed to increase civic engagement.
In September 2016, the Rethinking Debates project released a report on global and U.S. election debates and civic engagement. It was updated in 2017 with information from the U.S. presidential debates, including an interview with Mike McCurry of the Commission on Presidential Debates and this new addendum. Read the full report, with recommendations for debate organizers.
In the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, it’s tempting to think debates don’t matter. Most political analysts and public polls declared Hillary Clinton the winner of all three presidential debates. Donald Trump won the electoral vote and with it the election.
It wasn’t just that Trump debated differently than candidates we had seen before. In many ways, his most successful strategy was to oppose civil discourse—to reject the traditions and trappings of accepted political rituals. As a result, his victory leads to questions about the foundation of political discourse and the fundamental role of debates.
How much did the debates ultimately influence the election outcome? Researchers will grapple with that question—much as they have following previous elections—in the months and years ahead.
What we do know is that the debates ranked among the most-watched of these events in U.S. history; the first Clinton-Trump debate in September attracted a TV audience of 84 million, the largest ever, with more viewers watching on computers and mobile screens.
While the debates will be remembered for upending assumptions about preparedness and the importance of facts, they might also be considered noteworthy for the integration of technologies and platforms designed to increase engagement. We witnessed both the great potential and the striking limitations of using social media and crowd-sourced questions to connect voters more directly and authentically to the presidential candidates and the debate process.
Questions from the Public
Most significantly, two of the three debates included questions drawn from submissions to PresidentialOpenQuestions.com, a platform developed by the nonpartisan Open Debate Coalition. The platform went live about a week before the second debate, attracting nearly 16,000 questions and more than 3.7 million votes.
The Open Debate Coalition reviewed submissions and encouraged all users to take part in the moderation effort, including flagging questions for violations of the participation guidelines. If a submission was merged or reorganized under a different section, the original author was given a chance to clarify intent or request a reversal. Maintaining the integrity of the submission process was paramount.
CNN’s Anderson Cooper and ABC’s Martha Raddatz, moderators of the Oct. 9 town hall debate, had agreed to consider the top 30 questions (all of which received more than 20,000 votes) but did not commit to asking any of them. Surprisingly, they ended up choosing a question with only 13 votes that was slanted against Hillary Clinton.
Their surprising move sparked a petition to encourage Chris Wallace of Fox News, moderator of the Oct. 19 debate, to select a question that better represented concerns raised by the public. Wallace ended up asking about protecting the Second Amendment—the second most-popular question on the site with more than 65,000 votes. It was a pivotal moment in the history of U.S. presidential debates.
Still, many pressing issues that the public raised via PresidentialOpenQuestions.com and other forums—issues such as education, poverty, and climate change—were ignored. (Media Matters tracked how often panelists or debate moderators in the presidential election and tightly contested Senate and gubernatorial races asked questions about climate change. The result: 12 out of 55 debates.)
In a post-election interview with Civicist, Commission on Presidential Debates member (and former co-chair) Mike McCurry reflected on the role of moderators and how social media and other forms of public engagement helped drive debate conversations:
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.
During a post-election forum at the National Press Club on Dec. 5, Raddatz offered a reason for why climate change wasn’t brought up during the second debate: “We just assumed Chris would ask about it,” she said, referring to Wallace’s turn as moderator of the third and final presidential debate. She added that the release of the video of Trump talking about assaulting women cut into the time to address other issues.
Wallace said he did “think about” climate change but wasn’t convinced the topic could be addressed in the 15 minutes of allotted time.
“It gets technical fast or gets general fast,” he said. “I think climate change can be a little bit like grasping at clouds.”
McCurry, who took part in the forum along with CPD Co-Chair Frank Fahrenkopf, said he appreciated the complexities involved in discussing substantive issues but noted that there’s always a challenge in taking a difficult subject and drawing out “what’s going to happen if they get elected.”
“In retrospect,” said McCurry, “I’m not sure we drew out from either Secretary Clinton or Mr. Trump enough information about what you’re going to do if you’re in office.”
“Maybe if we had used the debates to elicit more of that, it would be more helpful to where we are right now,” he added.
Later in October, after the presidential debates, NH1 News Network used the Open Debate Coalition’s platform to solicit questions for the U.S. Senate and gubernatorial debates in New Hampshire. The network was more fully committed to the format, spending half of the debate on questions from the public.
“Several of the issues raised by the public in the Open Debate Coalition’s submission and voting process were questions our news team never would have thought of ourselves,” said Robb Atkinson, senior vice president of NH1 News Network. “For example, the opioid epidemic is discussed regularly in political debates here in New Hampshire, but this question from Bridget B. in Portsmouth, N.H., gave a fresh perspective that more directly addresses the day-to-day concerns of voters: ‘What will you do to make it easier for people in recovery to get jobs?’”
Other Models for Public Engagement
An explosion of fact-checking tools emerged in the lead-up to the election, driven by the development of new technologies as well as by the unprecedented need to correct falsehoods and misstatements made during the campaign.
Numerous media outlets fact-checked the debates as they occurred, developing annotated transcripts with additional context that have lasting educational value. The Washington Post, for instance, used Genius web annotator to highlight and explain candidates’ statements. Readers could comment on these additions and share them via social media.
These annotated transcripts were also highly popular; NPR, which employed two dozen journalists to fact check the debates, set new online traffic records.
The Internet Archive made video of the debates available in near real-time, enabling the public, along with journalists, to embed, share, and comment on video segments while the debates were live. It also tracked which debate segments were replayed the most by broadcast and cable news channels; the Annenberg Public Policy Center will use that information in research surveys.
In January 2017, two weeks before Trump’s inauguration, the Internet Archive launched the Trump Archive, with more than 500 video statements fact-checked by FactCheck.org, PolitiFact, and the Washington Post’s Fact Checker.
“By providing a free and enduring source for TV news broadcasts of Trump’s statements, the Internet Archive hopes to make it more efficient for the media, researchers, and the public to track Trump’s statements while fact-checking and reporting on the new administration,” wrote Nancy Watzman, managing editor of the Television Archive. “The Trump Archive can also serve as a rich treasure trove of video material for any creative use: comedy, art, documentaries, wherever people’s inspiration takes them.”
Another educational example includes WatchTheDebates.org, a new interactive civic education and voter engagement site developed by PBS and Microsoft. The platform includes every general election debate since 1960, and users can track how eight major issues, including civil rights, immigration, and social security, have been addressed over the years. The 2016 presidential debates were posted online within a day of each debate.
At some point, voters might be able to ask any question of any candidate and receive an immediate response—assuming the answer can be pulled from previously published statements, videos, and social media postings.
In 2016, the Washington Post created a virtual debate page featuring Trump and Clinton. Three questions concerning jobs, ISIS, and fitness to be president were front and center. (Users could choose from 13 additional topics, but they were a bit tricky to find on the platform.) In addition to providing video sources, the Post also linked to background articles and occasionally to its own Fact Checker. (Like many news outlets, the Post also solicited and published questions for the candidates from readers.)
This personally constructed debate will not replace the real thing. To combat the truthiness and obfuscation that appear to dominate present political discourse, candidates need to be responsive and substantive in real-time. In September, the Rethinking Debates project took note of several debate proposals, some more serious than others, that would, ideally, encourage candidates to stick to the issues and avoid name calling.
Jesse Richman, an associate professor of political science and international studies at Old Dominion University, suggested doing away with moderators and giving each candidate an allocated amount of time to make their points. The mic would be live only when a candidate was deliberately using up time. (The proposal is similar to the chess-clock model discussed in the 2015 report “Democratizing the Debates,” issued by the Annenberg Working Group on Presidential Campaign Debate Reform.)
The organization Intelligence Squared started a petition calling on the candidates and the Commission on Presidential Debates to adopt Oxford-style debate. More than 64,000 people signed it. Lee Drutman, a political scientist and senior fellow in the political reform program at New America, argued for crisis simulations instead of debates.
After everything that we witnessed during the 2016 presidential campaign, it’s perhaps easier to buy into Adam Chiara’s prediction of a Facebook Live debate in future years.
“Think about it. No set time. No set agenda. No media moderator. No schedule conflicts with the NFL. Just the candidates debating the issues with the viewing public acting as the referees and commentators,” wrote Chiara, a University of Hartford assistant professor of communication.
“With future candidates who might embrace the chance for long-form, rich debates, doing it on social media will just makes sense. And for audiences who are already on there as part of their daily routine, it will make sense to them, too,” he added.
Despite these idealistic suggestions, Jill Lepore, a New Yorker staff writer and professor of American History at Harvard, reminded us that “Political argument has been having a terrible century.”
Technology, from her historical perspective, has been more of a hindrance to civil, productive discourse than a catalyst. And the agreed-upon format of the debates has encouraged safe and superficial discussions. Lepore favors going back to basics, forcing the candidates to face each other and articulate their ideas with the least intrusion from a moderator as possible.
Whatever the solution, the need for a deeper, more responsive conversation is, after 2016, more urgent than ever.