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Improved (But Still Flawed) Formats

For the first 20 years of its existence, the CPD allowed the major party candidates to privately design nearly every facet of the debate formats. As a result, challenging questions, assertive moderators, follow-up questions, candidate-to-candidate questioning, rebuttals and surrebuttals were often excluded from presidential debates. 

For example:

  • The candidates often limited their own responses to 60 or 90 seconds.  This allowed them to avoid any in-depth discussion and, instead, to deploy a series of memorized soundbites in response to the often predictable questions.
  • When the League of Women Voters sponsored the debates, panelists and moderators were always permitted follow-up questions, which allowed them to get past rehearsed answers and challenge the responses of the candidates.  But when the CPD took over, the candidates sometimes prohibited or limited follow-up questions.  In 1996, follow-up questions were banned for all three of the presidential debates.
  • The candidates have strictly prohibited themselves from questioning each other during the debates.  Each of the Memorandum of Understanding states, "There will be no direct candidate-to-candidate questioning.
  • The CPD allowed the candidates handpick or vet each of the moderators.  As to be expected, the candidates generally select moderators who ask predictable, safe questions. For example, in 1992, 1996 and 2000, the candidates selected Jim Lehrer to moderate every single presidential debate.
  • The major party negotiators have transformed the popular town-hall format, which was originally praised for eliciting spontaneity and unusual questions, into a staged charade.  In 1992, audience members could ask anything they wanted.  In 1996, follow-up questions and questions seeking clarification were banned.  In 2000, the questions from the audience actually had to be written down on index cards and screened by moderator Jim Lehrer prior to the debates.   In 2004 and 2008, any town hall audience member who asked a question that differed from the question submitted on the index card would have her microphone turned off.

As a result of these other format restrictions, from 1988 until 2008, the CPD's formats prevented in-depth examination of critical issues.  Indeed, during that period of time, the debates were not really debates.  They were glorified bipartisan news conferences.  The candidates rarely spoke to each other during those events, and because they were peppered by a succession of disparate and predictable questions, they often superficially glazed over the issues and recited prepackaged soundbites. "It's too much show business and too much prompting, too much artificiality, and not really debates," said former President George Bush. "They're rehearsed appearances."

In 2008, in response to criticism by Open Debates and others, the CPD made small but important improvements to the presidential debate formats.  The CPD declared that for the first time ever, debate participants would be encouraged to directly respond to each other's statements without excessive interference from the moderator.  The revised formats were only moderately successful because of excessive time restraints on the candidates' responses. 

In 2012, again responding to criticism by Open Debates and others, the CPD adopted ground-breaking formats reform.  Unlike previous debates, which often prohibited the candidates from talking to each other and often limited their responses to 90-seconds, the formats in 2012 allowed the candidates to engage in an 11-minute free-for-all after each question. The lack of time and content restrictions elicited unprecedented fireworks and revealing interactions between the candidates. At times, the head-to-head discussions forced the candidates off their scripts and into a real and substantive debate. The Commission deserves praise for responding to its critics and advocating for more informative debate formats.

Yet, while the formats greatly improved, major format problems persisted in 2012.  For the first time in history, candidates were informed of the topics of the questions (though not the questions themselves) before each debate. For the first time in history, the moderator was prohibited from asking any follow-up questions or questions seeking clarification (though at least one moderator, Candy Crowley, openly defied this rules.) And the town hall format continued to allow the moderator to screen each audience member's question and handpick the few ones to be asked. 

Moreover, in order to permit time for lengthy discussion, the new 2012 formats only allowed for about six questions in each debate.  As a result, important issues were never addressed – from immigration to the environment to gun control.  More debates are needed to cover all this ground. In 1858, Lincoln and Douglas debated eight times, each debate lasting three hours.  The Republican primaries featured 27 debates, and functioned as an antidote to the influence of money, felling establishment candidates like Rick Perry and catapulting virtual unknowns like Herman Cain. Yet, the Commission only permits three debates in the general election. In fact, each Memorandum of Understanding expressly states that the major party candidates are prohibited from participating in any other debates, with any other candidates, or with any other sponsor.