The Presidential Candidate Debates Are a Circus, but a New Debate Format Can Fix That

When presidential debates become a media circus, it's the voters who lose. But an alternative debate format would eliminate the kind of candidate-moderator feud that is dominating our political moment.

John Donvan: The public is so politicized that if I were moderating a presidential debate and I were to say to one of the candidates, you know, you’re really off point and you’re not responding, everybody would think that that means I’m on the other guy’s side. And that doesn’t happen in the Intelligence Squared debates. I don’t know why, but the audience recognizes and understands that what I’m trying to do is to protect the integrity of the debate. That if I’m calling somebody for not really debating well, our audience gets it that what I’m trying to do is to make the debate better. Not help one side or the other. I think in the presidential debates the moderators if they don’t interrupt, it’s their fault for letting the debate run off the rails. And if they do interrupt, they get attacked for taking sides. And that’s why I think it’s a sort of no — it’s a very difficult situation. I actually think and we have proposed to the presidential debate commission that they do the debates our way. Have a stated motion, do an Oxford-style debate — at least one time. I would be happy to moderate it. You’re going to debate about for and against this motion. You’re going to be okay with me interrupting. You won’t take it as an insult. You won’t take it as me taking sides. And may the best person win.

Our presidential debate moderators are stuck in an impossible position: Either they allow candidates to spin and not give real answers to questions, or, when they interrupt and insist on a genuine response, they're interpreted as having a personal agenda. The results are a politicized public, a suspicious pool of candidates, and the loss of a democratic forum.


John Donvan, moderator of the Intelligence Squared U.S. debates, has proposed an alternate debate format to fix the current circus that are our presidential debates: an Oxford-style debate, or parliamentary debate, where a topic is set for the entire evening and candidates take a "for" or "against" position. This format keeps candidates from fearing "gotcha" questions, allows moderators to enter the debate without fear of reprisal, and preserves what is intended to be a uniquely democratic forum.

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