Are Presidential Primary Debates Working?

January 23, 2012
By Jenny Li Fowler

Mark McKinnon wonders if the course of history would have been altered had P.T. Barnum moderated the famed Lincoln-Douglas debate in 1858, implying that today’s political debates are a bit of a circus.

In his new research paper, “Gone Rogue: Time to Reform Presidential Primary Debates,” the author asks: Does the current primary debate process best serve voters, the candidates, the parties, the nation – or is there a better way?

McKinnon, a political consultant who served as a Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy during the fall of 2011, argues that over the decades debates have proven to matter although at times the formats detract from the substance.

“Memorable debate moments have helped shape presidential primary contests,” he writes. However he adds, “From my perspective, both as a one-time insider and now outsider to the process, the debate formats, timing, moderators and questions no longer showcase the candidates’ strengths or encourage dialogue on the substantive issues most important to primary voters. Creating reality-TV conflicts, seeking unrealistic 60- second solutions to unrest in the Middle East and allowing only 30-second sound bite rebuttals may drive better ratings but not a better democratic process.”

The author admits that opinions vary about what specific guidelines should be utilized for future presidential primary debates. But McKinnon claims that most of the candidates, campaign managers, party officials, members of the media and voters interviewed agree on some general principles:

  • Criteria for candidate participation
  • Length and format of debates
  • Number of debates that should be sanctioned and when they should be scheduled
  • Ideal number of candidates per debate (and strategies to accommodate)
  • Criteria for sponsorship and partnership
  • Guarantee of equal time and number of questions
  • Appropriate venues
  • Methods for determining podium or seating order.

McKinnon concludes, “The 2012 presidential primary debates went rogue. With some serious review, discussion and deliberation, the primary debates for the 2016 election can be both entertaining and informative, and can better serve voters, the candidates, the parties and, yes, even the media.”

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Mark McKinnon headshot

Mark McKinnon, political consultant who served as a fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center during the fall of 2011

"Moderators and questions no longer showcase the candidates’ strengths or encourage dialogue on the substantive issues most important to primary voters," writes McKinnon.