Rethinking Debates: A Report on Increasing Engagement

Citing examples from international and U.S. debates, Civic Hall’s Rethinking Debates project looks at technologies and platforms that have the potential to transform political discourse and make debates more responsive to voters' needs and concerns.

Rethinking Debates report

Note: First released in September 2016, this report was updated in January 2017 to include coverage of the U.S. presidential debates. Read the post-election interview with Mike McCurry of the Commission on Presidential Debates, a newly added addendum, and the revised report, which includes updated recommendations for debate organizers at all levels of government.


Minority parties and their supporters scorn the debates as a sham—except when their nominees are included in them. Before and after the debates, the candidates’ campaign staff and party spokespersons spin them for political advantage. Political pundits and journalists scour the candidates’ performances looking for the “winner.” Media watchdog organizations and political advocacy groups question the debates’ legitimacy, even their legality. The candidates themselves pose and posture before acceding to the debates, like prizefighters trying to intimidate each other. But citizens watch the debates in total numbers that rival or even exceed the Super Bowl for viewership. The debates are their one opportunity in the campaign to see and hear the candidates speak directly to each other in a face-to-face encounter.

Newton N. Minow and Craig L. LaMay
“Inside the Presidential Debates: Their Improbable Past and Promising Future”
(University of Chicago Press, 2008)

When the first general election presidential debate of 2016 takes place on Sept. 26, it will be 56 years to the day since the first televised presidential debate, between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, was broadcast from the studios of CBS’s WBBM-TV in Chicago. That debate drew around 70 million people—nearly 60 percent of U.S. households—with many watching on black-and-white television sets.

This year, tens of millions of people around the world will view the debates between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton on their phones, tablets, and laptops. Many will use a second screen to criticize, cheer on, and annotate the conversation. Data streams will be gathered under hashtags, a term that wasn’t in use during a presidential election until 2008.

Yet few changes have been made to the debate format that might reflect this massive technological shift and the new ways in which we engage with media, politicians, and each other. As it was in 1960, the viewers will be on one side of the mediated wall, and the candidates on the other.

Quincy Howe, the ABC journalist who moderated the fourth and final Kennedy-Nixon debate on Oct. 21, 1960, said at its conclusion: “Vice President Nixon and Senator Kennedy have used a new means of communication to pioneer a new type of political debate… Surely they have set a new precedent. Perhaps they have established a new tradition.”

The paradox in the idea of a “new tradition,” as Howe put it, captures the promise and disappointment that have accompanied modern presidential debates since that moment.

Televised presidential debates in the United States have solidified a firm place in the campaign season, and considering the popularity of those debates in the present election cycle, they produce political and cultural moments that were inconceivable in previous eras. Despite that transformative power, however, the format of that first televised debate—two candidates on stage with a moderator—remains the default, with very few exceptions that offer only the slightest variations.

For the last nine months, Civic Hall’s Rethinking Debates project has focused on this one question: Can new approaches to debates embrace the increased civic desire to participate in the conversation and raise the level of political discourse? Or, in short, can tech help improve debates?

From our exploration of debate formats and tools around the world, we can suggest several avenues, most of them afforded by new and emerging digital tools, through which the traditional structure of debates can be transformed to enhance political discourse and boost civic engagement.

The question, at least for this study, is not which one magical format or tool will make for better debates, but what structural and technological possibilities are available to begin the process. The increasing number of debates on the state and local level may offer a powerful experimental ground.

CNN UK election debate

Studio audience members vote on the question of EU membership at aU.K. general election debate hosted by CNN in 2015 at the McLaren Thought Leadership Centre.

The idea of making significant changes to U.S. presidential debates seems virtually impossible, especially when media traditions and the entrenched interests of the candidates inhibit innovation. Others have tried; in particular, the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, which published a report in 2015 on debate reform that looked at alternative formats and broadening accessibility, offering a set of sensible and actionable recommendations. But to date, the Commission on Presidential Debates, the nonprofit body set up by the two major parties to manage America’s national debates, has yet to make any meaningful changes in its format.

Despite this inertia—and the carnival atmosphere that recent primary debates have assumed, often with boisterous in-room audience reaction—the importance of presidential debates remains. And while the political discourse reflects entrenched polarization on many issues, debates, at all levels, are essential elements of the democratic process.

Debates in the Interactive Age

As of September 2016, a total of 78 countries and regions have held political debates for elected office—most at the level of president or prime minister. In the past year, some election debates, as well as debates on issues such as Brexit, have made front-page news worldwide, causing a seismic impact on the future of nations. And, in a historic first, four candidates running to be the next UN secretary general debated publicly at an event in April at Civic Hall, fielding questions solicited from the public.

On a more fundamental level, no matter the history or size of a country, the very act of holding televised debates has become a marker of the health of a country’s democracy, or at least its democratic potential.

“TV debates between the candidates are the highest expression of democratic political culture,” Zoran Milanović, former prime minister of Croatia and president of the Social Democratic Party, wrote on Facebook earlier this year, when calling for televised debates with his challenger. 

What we have also seen across the globe is a growing acknowledgment of the importance of engaging the public in those debates, using whatever tools are available. In countries where debates might be new or internet access is limited, debate organizers are still making efforts to solicit public input.

In Guyana, for instance, where internet penetration is under 40 percent, the nonprofit organization Merundoi hosted a series of debates in advance of elections in March—the first local government elections since 1994—and solicited questions from voters via Facebook, a dedicated Gmail address, and a phone number. The debates were broadcast by the National Communications Network and streamed live on its website.

In Malawi, getting eight of the 12 presidential candidates to appear on stage together in 2014 for the country’s first televised presidential debate—the first presidential debate ever in Malawi’s 50 years of independence—was considered revolutionary. Eleven candidates attended the next two debates.

“It’s rare to get so many candidates to attend the first-time effort,” said Matt Dippell, National Democratic Institute (NDI) global debate program advisor and deputy director for Latin America and the Caribbean. “That was a huge achievement.”

With internet penetration only around 7 percent, social media did not factor into the organizers’ plans. Yet it still played an indirect role. Many Malawians living in the United States and in other countries turned to Facebook and Twitter to discuss the debates, and those conversations had an impact on the questions that were asked.

“One cannot ignore the social platform at the moment,” said Anthony Kasunda, chair of Malawi’s debate taskforce. “So the team organizing questions took serious notice of the issues raised on the social front.”

In countries that have a higher level of internet and smartphone penetration, their first presidential debates—or, as in the case of the Philippines, the first debates in nearly 25 years—have been more likely to embrace social media, both as a form of messaging between the campaigns and the voters and as a social space to discuss and debate the election. They have skipped directly to a style of debate that mirrors current media/technology partnerships in the United States, sometimes even surpassing it.

For instance, in 2015, Facebook, which says it has 47 million users in the Philippines—only 7 million fewer than the total number of people registered to vote there—partnered with the Philippines Commission on Elections (Comelec), as well as with different broadcasters hosting the election debates, to provide data to help inform the questions moderators might ask the presidential candidates. This included conversational trends, such as the top political issues people were discussing in different parts of the country. Facebook and Twitter, another Comelec partner, also assisted with crowdsourcing questions ahead of the debates.

Comelec invite on twitter to submit debate questions

On April 24, the last of the three presidential debates generated more than 1.9 million tweets using the hashtag #PilipinasDebates2016. It was “the highest engagement on Twitter for a presidential debate this year.” By the end, more than 35 million election-related tweets, and more than 268 million election-related interactions on Facebook, had been registered.

Broadcasters also tried new technologies. The GMA Network, co-host of the first debate, broadcast 360-degree livestream coverage, the first for a live event in the Philippines—both building on and feeding the public’s desire to do more than watch passively.

Impact, however, is about more than numbers, and while technology, from television to social media, can produce seemingly massive participation, our study has found that integration of new digital tools has not guaranteed a consistently higher quality of conversation or a deeper level of civic engagement.

In this project we looked at several examples of technologies that have aimed to give the public a say in debates, either by providing real-time feedback or engaging people in generating questions for candidates in advance. These approaches include: viewer-response tools, live interactive audience feedback, voter-generated questions, and emerging tools and platforms.

The first half of this report explores in-depth the potential of each of these innovations, based on their use in recent election debates around the world.

Following the survey of global debate innovations, the latter half of this report examines efforts within the United States to use tech to elevate public involvement. While these have not, generally speaking, been as extensive as some of the international examples featured here, there clearly is interest on the part of both tech platforms and media sponsors to partner around debates. And, as we will show, at the state and local level, some debate organizers are already making real use of tech platforms, including using social media to source debate questions and live interactive audience feedback tools.

The launch of this report coincides with an announcement by the Commission on Presidential Debates that Facebook will be working with the moderators of the presidential debates to provide data on what people are searching for and discussing about the election. For the second presidential debate, the town-hall style forum, Facebook will help source questions for the candidates. Other technology companies such as Google may also play a role.

While we applaud the door being cracked open, if just a tiny bit, it remains to be seen if this integration will be utilized by moderators (who have the ultimate say in which questions are asked), and if the questions selected will bring more nuance to the debate or reinforce an existing narrative.

We welcome the opportunity to further discuss and encourage the adoption of some of the innovative methods we’ve discovered worldwide.

View the full report here (pdf).