A Presidential Debate Proposal: Great Idea, with a Caveat

By on February 22, 2016

Intelligence Squared U.S. (IQ2) has a new proposal for updating the presidential debate format. It's a great idea–but with a big caveat.

IQ2 is a fine organization. I respect what they do and watch their debates with great interest. Their debates are very similar to our own. And the Oxford-style format would be a big improvement on the current system. But there's one thing about IQ2 debates that has always bothered me.

The way they declare a "winner" of the debate is by voting: Attendees vote before the debate either in support of the motion, against the motion, or undecided. After the debate, they vote again. The side that has increased its vote by the most percentage points is declared the winner.

Although I'm sure it's never happened before, it's easy to game this system. If the debaters really wanted to, they could cram the room with their own supporters and have them all vote "undecided" at the beginning and in favor of their own side at the end. That would pretty much ensure that their side gained the most in terms of percentage points.

The reason this has probably never happened in an actual IQ2 debate is that there's not much at stake. But in a presidential election, the stakes are huge. Imagine one campaign boasting that its candidate was the "officially declared winner" of a debate as determined by IQ2 itself. That would be enormous in terms of not just bragging rights but also donations, voters, and that all-important "momentum." If these gains are gotten through dishonest means, that compromises our electoral system.

So if this idea is to move forward, the possibility of high-stakes cheating needs to be eliminated. Otherwise, it could do more harm than good.

But why do we need to declare a "winner" in the first place? More fundamentally, what exactly does it mean to "win" a debate?

Oftentimes with IQ2 debates, I find myself disagreeing with the winning side. At least in my mind, that side certainly did not "win" the debate.

With presidential debates, each side inevitably declares that its own candidate won. And among impartial observers, who won the debate is often framed in terms of body language, facial expressions, and other things that are unrelated to the substance of the candidates' remarks. There does not seem to be any objective way of determining a winner. And even if there were, about half of the audience would disagree anyway.

Yet for some reason, we feel a need to declare a "winner" for every debate, even though that very concept seems meaningless.

You'll notice that at PublicSquare.net, we do not declare winners for our debates.

Also, for what it's worth, we have our own format for presidential debates: the Presidential Debate Series. You can see the first installment here, and more are in the works. Only third parties and independent candidates are participating now, but we hope the major parties will sign on for the 2020 cycle.