Changes to Debate Format Could Better Serve Voters, Candidates

The general, bipartisan consensus is that last week's GOP presidential debate on CNBC was a disaster.

The three moderators were criticized for losing control of the event and even being on the attack. In fact, one of the candidates, Sen. Ted Cruz, took the moderators to task right in the middle of the debate.

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"The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don't trust the media," Cruz said. "This is not a cage match and you look at the questions, 'Donald Trump: Are you a comic book villain? Ben Carson: Can you do math? John Kasich: Will you insult two people over here? Marco Rubio: Why don't you resign? Jeb Bush: Why have your numbers fallen?'

Sen. Ted Cruz, calling out the CNBC moderators.Sen. Ted Cruz, calling out the CNBC moderators. "How about talking about the substantive issues people care about?"

Since that widely panned event there has been a lot of discussion over what sort of format and approach upcoming debates should take to best serve not only the candidates but more importantly, the voters. 

“It was deplorable on all counts. It was embarrassing really on the part of both the candidates, the Republican National Committee, which was involved in negotiating it, and some of the journalists,” said Newton Minow, the former chairman of the FCC under President John F. Kennedy–Minow has been called the father of televised presidential debates and he co-chaired the 1976 and 1980 U.S. presidential debates. “The purpose of the debate is to educate the voters so that they can make intelligent decisions about who to support. In this case, it became a debate about the debates rather than a debate about the issues.” 

“The purpose of the debate is to educate the voters so that they can make intelligent decisions about who to support.”

–Newton Minow

Jim Warren, the national political writer for U.S. News & World Report and chief media writer for the Poynter Institute, disagreed.

“I don’t think it was anywhere near as bad as Newt suggests. I think it was very untidy," Warren said. "I think a lot of that stems from the fact that you have an impossible structural reality at this point of 10—count ‘em 10 guys—who over two hours you expect to perhaps have a serious discussion of policy at the same time.”

Jason DeSanto, a senior lecturer at Northwestern University's law school and a specialist in political communications, acknowledged the difficulties of moderating 10 candidates. 

"It’s going to be difficult to keep the debates on track. Whether they’re unwieldy or not does depend to some extent on the way that they’re moderated, and Jim’s also right in saying there were effectively five moderators. I don’t think substantively they did a very good job of keeping the debate on track," DeSanto said. "They didn’t moderate discussion and that’s the first goal of a moderator. The questions themselves in great measure were fine, but sometimes they were wrapped a little bit in a context which made them easy to attack.”  

Newt and Jo Minow Debate Series

The first installment of the Newt and Jo Minow Debate Series titled, “U.S. Prosecutors Have too Much Power,” will feature two “pro-prosecutors” and two opponents. The event will be held Tuesday, Nov. 10 at 6:30 p.m. in the Thorne Auditorium at the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law. The event is free and open to the public, but registration is requested. The event will also be livestreamed

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In the third prime-time meeting of Republican presidential aspirants, the biggest loser of the evening appeared to be cable financial news network CNBC, which was roundly criticized by participants and observers for getting started late and for the way moderators handled the proceedings. 

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