What Makes Presidential Debates Great: Lessons for the Final Debate

Monday night, President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney face off in the final presidential debate. The high stakes show the continuing importance of public opinion in American democracy.
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Monday night, President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney face off in the final presidential debate at Lynn University, focusing on foreign policy, and using the traditional debate format rather than the town-hall format on display at Hofstra University on October 16. What lessons can each candidate take from New York to Florida?

Quick personal note: I saw the Hofstra debate from inside, a unique opportunity and honor. From the time Hofstra University learned that we would host a presidential debate again, I knew the day would be full of activities, interviews, and impromptu opportunities. And just like last time, I fully expected to watch the debate again with my colleagues in one of our special viewing locations on campus, as Hofstra had decided, wisely, to give its debate tickets to students via lottery. But just hours before the debate, I was invited to the debate hall (thank you Steve Scully and C-SPAN!), and I accepted immediately. As a student of the presidency, I was eager to see one of the key events in modern presidential elections in person, but even more than that, I simply wanted to experience the debate up close.

So what did I learn, and why does it matter for tonight's debate?

More questions are better than fewer. The town-hall debate at Hofstra and the vice-presidential debate on October 11 at Centre College moved along briskly because the official time limits were six-ten minutes per question. Enforcement of time limits was weak at best (and no easy task in a tight race for the White House), but the town-hall debate included eleven questions (albeit with the last one squeezed in after the official ending time), and the vice-presidential debate addressed nine topics and included closing statements. The October 22 debate will follow the format of the October 3 one at the University of Denver: six topics selected by the moderator, with fifteen minutes for each. The purpose of the longer segments is to give time for extended discussion of complex topics, but the problem is that during a campaign, the candidates inevitably criticize each other as much as they present their own policies. And despite the rules about not addressing each other directly, the candidates do that to score political points. Given the predetermined format, the conversation will flow most smoothly if multiple questions are raised on each topic, and the candidates are pressed to move on as soon as their policy differences are clear. Further discussion only prolongs critiques and efforts to get an opponent to admit a weakness, flaw, or mistake, which neither will do, of course.

The moderator needs to keep the debate moving. Before the Hofstra debate, reports that the moderator, Candy Crowley, might ask questions of her own in the town-hall forum prompted some controversy. One of the most memorable moments in the debate will be her answering Romney's query to Obama about whether the president referred to terrorism immediately following the horrific attacks on the U.S. embassy in Libya that killed four people, including the U.S. ambassador. (Crowley said Obama did use the word "terror" in describing the attacks the next day, though she also said Romney was correct in saying the administration took two weeks to give a full explanation of what happened.) The two candidates clearly were not going to resolve this issue on their own, and the moderator is responsible for interceding when such problems arise in a debate. Perhaps Crowley could have addressed the issue by saying it would be discussed in the foreign-policy debate in Florida. But had she not intervened, the debate likely would have dissolved into finger-pointing by both candidates and fewer questions by the town-hall audience.

Debate rules matter and need to be enforced. The audience applause in the Hofstra debate when Crowley answered Romney's question about Libya appeared to be for Crowley; as noted above, she halted a verbal dispute that the two candidates would not have resolved themselves (nor are they supposed to in these debates). But the audience is supposed to be silent, and the applause followed three separate audience bursts of laughter in response to offhand comments by President Obama. All of these reactions appeared to be spontaneous from inside the hall, but after the first laughter, someone should have reminded the audience of the rules. The difficulty here is that when the audience as a whole responds, how is a penalty for non-compliance possible? And some would argue that complete audience silence is unrealistic (though the rule largely has been followed in past debates). The burden of enforcement seems to fall on the moderator, unless another person is assigned that task.

For all the critiques of the presidential debates, are we better off with them? Without a doubt, yes, and the candidates are well aware of that, or they would not agree to participate. Clearly the candidates wanted structured and carefully planned debates, with few surprises. The viewing public is more interested in unscripted moments, in seeing how candidates respond when they face an unexpected or tough question. Finding the balance between these competing goals is no easy task, but candidates and voters alike learn from these efforts. And in 2012, each debate clearly matters; the high stakes show the continuing importance of public opinion in American democracy. All eyes on Florida!