Sunday, January 29, 2012

Sunday Question for Liberals

Same question that I asked of conservatives. With the debates winding down for this cycle, what lessons if any should Democrats learn for 2016 about the way they were organized? What worked? What didn't?

Of course, the incentives of individual candidates and of the potential sponsors of debates may well differ from those of the party as a whole. But to the extent that the party could change things, what should be changed and what should be retained?


  1. The debates were at their most informative when they let the candidates talk the most. So things that didn't work include long intro sequences and unnecessary pagentry, answering questions by raising hands, reminding the candidates of the rules, trying to reign in the audience, and trying to get the candidates to pick fights with one another.

    Things that did work well: questioners who focused on policy, either as a reporter (eg WSJ's Kelly Evans) or as voters, longer answer periods, fewer candidates on the stage.

  2. Debates could be better in a few ways that *weren't* tried.

    1) Don't feed (just) focus on the frontrunners. Particularly when the debates had 8 candidates, time was not equally distributed. Given that we saw the rise and fall of most candidates in the race, it would have been helpful to hear more from candidates like Rick Santorum early rather than just Mitt vs. the flavor of the week.

    2) Longer debates with longer answer times, especially early on. Three hours, especially at the point the the campaign where there are lots of candidates on the stage. These are all on cable; it's not like the extra hour would be pre-empting anything but the pundits' diagnosis of what the candidates said. It's far more informative to let the candidates talk more than to have pundits dissect what was just said.

    3) Ask the candidates some policy questions -- created by policy experts -- in advance and let the candidates prepare responses, including visual aids. It is helpful to have candidates answer the same set of questions, and improve answers to gotchya questions. Yes, newspapers could do this too, but people actually watch debates.

  3. I think the debates should not be managed by networks that are serving their own interests over those of the party or the voters.

    That said, I think this idea that there have been too many debates is just repulsive. I read some pundit somewhere said that it's taken time away from raising money from TV ads. I really hope that's not what many people think. The debates are far more interesting and informative than TV ads and scripted appearances.

    What I think should change is the way the debates are run. I think the GOP debates have shown that cable news networks may try to host a lot of debates to draw viewers in and then ask questions during the debates that aren't so much substantive but are just designed to put the debate in the news the next day. And of course, the audiences have been just absurd. Imagine those GOP debates without applause after everything. They would have been different events entirely. The parties should structure the debates a little more but they should beware that structuring the debates to protect weak candidates or unpopular views ultimately hurts the party. A lot of the applause that Mitt and Newt have gotten during those debates would draw cringes and jeers from most people. This is one of the ways in which I think the primary has really hurt the GOP. In the short-term, a smart, factually-oriented debate over substance might put a lot of space between the GOP and their activists, but they need to do it eventualy to help get rid of some of the crazy that they've grown these last several years.

    The Dems should learn lessons from these problems and not shy away from smart modern debates not controlled by network execs in 2016.

  4. That "oops" thing worked pretty good.

  5. What should Dems learn?

    1. Don't pack your audience with the far-flanks of the party; it forces the candidates to pander to them for applause lines, and we'll see soon, but my suspicions is that it will prove difficult to walk back from the extreme pandering;

    2. Turn the debates over to groups who focus on issues; the League of Women Voters, etc.; so that candidates can discuss real policy not talking-point party policy and the blooper of the week;

    3. Make sure that we encourage good candidates to run, giving voters a choice that fills positive space instead of negative space;

    4. Continue to co-opt the other party's sane policies; if they're stuck running as 'Not Democrat,' or 'Not Liberal," they don't have much ability to find any solid ground to stand upon;

    5. Remember that focus-group speak may gain short-term support, but if it's not backed by substance and real action, it will only carry you so far.

  6. Obviously the Republican debates have been little short of Fellini-esque, and it's hard to see how the Party has been well-served by them. But it's hard to see how this or that format or moderator is to blame.

  7. I think zic has an interesting point about having policy-oriented groups sponsor the debates, or at least some of them. The advantage of having the media run them, presumably, is precisely that the media have a different agenda from the politicians themselves. If the parties run the debates, they will be tempted to play down or cover up candidate weaknesses. The media are happy to dig up weaknesses, but--as noted above--they're tempted to provoke drama, conflict, and other headline-producing features even if they're trivial or artificial. Policy-oriented groups may be the way to go, although you may have to have a lot of them because so many are focused on a single issue or narrow point of view.

    1. The League of Women Voters ran presidential debates. They stopped doing this in 1988 because the parties were trying to dictate to many of the details; from their press release, via wikipedi:
      "The League of Women Voters is withdrawing sponsorship of the presidential debates...because the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter. It has become clear to us that the candidates' organizations aim to add debates to their list of campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity and answers to tough questions. The League has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public."

      I'd return to those halcyon days of yore for debates.

  8. Nationally televised debates + YouTube x twitter > regional politics of early primary states

  9. Be on the lookout early for figures who may be thinking of entering the race as 'business plan' candidates, not genuine or issue-based candidates. Nothing could have stopped Bachmann and Perry from having their full, fair shots, given their credentials and interest-group power bases. And Paul has also been a legitimate vehicle for right-wing libertarianism. But the party really screwed up it allowing (or not sufficiently disabling) the candidacies of Cain and, to a lesser extent, Gingrich, earlier rather than later. The lessen to learn is that the media-led televised debates will not do this job as well as the party might have hoped: it will fan the flames of reality-show absurdity and play to the worst instincts of some populist followers of politics.

  10. I think the main problem this year was that the candidates sucked. As long as the Democrats don't have terrible candidates, they'll be all right.

    In 2004, while challenging a middling incumbent President, the Democrats had Kerry, Edwards, Dean, Gephardt, Clark, and Lieberman - All credentialed, plausible nominees. The problem with the Republicans is that the ratio of fringe/plausible was way off.

  11. To my surprise, the debates have worked very well at illuminating the strengths and weaknesses of the candidates. Debates closer to the actual voting are more valuable than early debates and debates with fewer candidates are better than all inclusive debates. Therefore I would try to only have a few debates before, say, September and would have a fairly high threshold to be invited to the debates. If you are within the margin of error of 0% in the polls by the time debates are being held, you aren't going to be the nominee and you don't need to be taking valuable debate time away from real contenders.

  12. Incentives between the networks, which want the longest part of the public campaign to continue, and the winner of the invisible primary, who needs the validation as quickly as possible.

  13. What worked? All of it -- the pageantry, the faux patriotism, the pandering to the nutjobs in the audience, the audience participation (and non-participation), the gotcha questions, the focusing on the flavor of the week and ignoring the non-candidates. All of it worked to draw consistent attention to the circus that now masquerades as a political party. All of it worked to show that Barack Obama is the only adult in the race.

    Democrats can learn from this too: despite all the blustery rhetoric from every "flavor of the week," they all managed to withdraw very early on. In other words, Money Talks, Bullshit Walks!"


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