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“Seeing the candidates quarrel over policies seems like just another presidential debate you see on TV,” writes VOX ATL’s James Rhee. “But I started to wonder why everyone didn’t receive the same amounts of time or similar questions.”

Illustration by James Rhee

Presidential Debates Are Not What You Think They Are

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Seeing the candidates quarrel over policies seems like just another presidential debate you see on TV, but I started to wonder why everyone didn’t receive the same amounts of time or similar questions.

Especially during the Atlanta debate hosted by MSNBC and the Washington Post on November 20, 2019. As I rewatched the debate over again, I couldn’t help but notice that the time given to each candidate was drastically different. I felt enraged by the fact that the media networks had so much power over how they were going to broadcast each candidate. While Elizabeth Warren received up to thirteen minutes of time to talk on stage, Andrew Yang, a relatively strong contender at the time, got around only seven minutes of talking time.

Another example is the last presidential debate hosted by CNN and Univision on March 15, 2020. Things changed significantly with the precautions of COVID-19, resulting in the two remaining contenders for the Democratic presidential nominee debating in front of no audience. Even with no live viewers, I still noticed a lot more interaction between the candidates as a conversation rather than just answer the questions given by the moderators.

This made me think about how debates were actually structured. With no rigorous, specific guidelines, how would this even constitute as a debate? When asked about how they were going to improve the system specifically about funding election campaigns, former Vice President Joe Biden responded vaguely about having “no private contributions in the election process,” and defended his statement by saying his “average contribution is $44” signifying the idea that his campaign is funded by small donations. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders cleverly came back with a response on how Biden is using super PACs to fund his ads, while Biden claims that Bernie has nine super PACs. Biden goes on threatening to list them, but Bernie confidently tells him to, with Biden struggling to name even one of the super PACs which Biden claims he has.

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Although Bernie’s response was an ingenious response to expose Biden’s lack of evidence, both of their responses were not very detailed on how to improve the funding system, such as Bernie’s idea of taking on Wall Street, the drug companies, the insurance companies, and the fossil fuel industry. This was just a recent example of how these “debates” don’t seem like a debate at all with topics being vaguely covered, with more petty remarks at each other.

 

Before writing and journaling about the topic of presidential debates, there was a lot I didn’t understand about how these debates worked. After interviewing experts and doing further research myself, I learned that these debates are much more complex than I thought.

For one, I learned that a regular standard debate is different from a presidential debate in ways ranging from what questions each debater gets asked to how those questions get phrased.

“In a real debate everybody has the exact same time,” says Dr. Edward Panetta, director of the Georgia Debate Union at the University of Georgia. “When you look at presidential debates, you find that people in the middle with the highest polling numbers talk the most because they’re ahead.”

Although the presidential debates are called debates, Dr. Panetta does not view them as “real debates.”

“In an hour, you can’t coherently talk about social security, health care, Medicaid, nuclear weapons policy, global warming, et cetera,” he says. “In a real debate, there’s a stated proposition with a limited range of topics.”

Because broadcast television revenue for mainstream news outlets are such a huge variable that affects these debates, they can be seen as more of an entertainment product rather than a serious discussion on who is most fit to lead our country. Dr. Panetta adds, “You want to think of that in terms of them selling products.” He believes that if the moderators ask a great “gotcha question,” that becomes a news item itself that circulates around the media and helps their profitability. He backs up his claim by saying, “First and foremost, this is television programming from the perspective of the people who are asked to produce it. It is mainly for profit.”

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As a teen who enjoys watching these debates, I also started to notice how these presidential debates are a form of entertainment. Oftentimes, I found myself and even others getting frustrated at the fact that these debates are rarely “fair.”

John Koch, a Senior Lecturer and Director of Debate at Vanderbilt wrote to VOX ATL, “In a debate, what you would want to see is a variety of questions that focus more on issues and less on the personality/characteristics of candidates.”

Policies that you believe in are often what makes a candidate worth voting for and not their charisma, but in a live debate, even the stuttering or a clever remark can make a presidential debate much more appealing to the mass viewers. Some moderators may even pose questions about controversial issues to generate more media attention rather than ask about less controversial policies.

Before writing this article, I was very skeptical and judgmental about how the Democratic National Committee (DNC) structured the “debate” and felt it wasn’t fair to all of the candidates standing up on the stage. However, after interviewing many experts on this subject, I understand why it isn’t just a platform where everyone just explains their policies clearly. Panetta says, “A lot of times, the networks are constructing questions to create moments rather than constructing questions to kind of illuminate issues in a direct answer.” With millions of Americans tuning in to the TV to spend their day learning more about the candidates, it is unlikely that many people would want to tune into a debate that feels like a lecture on a candidate’s policies.

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Some media hosting the debates will have more credibility than others because they are not perceived as having bias, but I’ve learned that sometimes it isn’t bad for some media to have their biases. While these debates may not cover what you want them to have covered, you may find something new that you may not even have heard of about another potential candidate. Being politically involved in ways like watching debates allows you to expand your knowledge on all the candidates, and the media is a great way to get more politically educated.

When watching the next presidential debate, keep in mind that the debates aren’t meant to just list information on policies. A UGA Professor of Political Science, Audrey A. Haynes wrote to VOX ATL, “Since news organizations are made of professional journalists, editors, and producers, during the presidential primaries, it would be unlikely for an entire group of people to have a singular preference” pertaining to every debate question.

“The commission works with the candidates and the networks to select a representative group of journalists to ask questions” that are usually impartial, says Haynes, it is unlikely that every candidate will get equal treatment in time or in questions.  So if you’re dissatisfied with the coverage of a specific new outlet, watch the debate anyway — you might learn something new about your candidate or even someone you were not aware was in the race. And with so many different news organizations and moderators covering the debates, you can always just wait for the next one.

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