Even with more than a month since the last GOP presidential candidate debate, after nearly 20 debates, voters (and viewers) are still feeling a sense of fatigue coming into tonight’s Republican debate in Mesa, AZ--and there’s no shortage of reasons why.
2. Emphasis Is On Personality, Not Policy. “Discussing character can be far more personal and seem nastier than say, education policy,” says Neera Tanden, president of the left-tilting Center for American Progress. In 2008, Tanden helped Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton prepare for debates.
Focusing on personality rather than policy might make good television, but makes for horrible debate. Two of the more extreme instances of delving into personal lives occurred when, in two different debates, Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich were asked about extramarital affairs.
In both cases, the audiences booed the moderators. But for Gingrich, the occasion allowed him to tee-off and set the tone of the debate for which none of the candidates could catch up. However, just as important, questions of a personal nature are not something other debaters are typically willing to weigh-in on and, therefore, make bad debate material.
And perhaps that’s why what has been considered by wonks and others to be one of the more successful debates (although one of the least watched) was the Nov. 22, 2011 GOP candidate debate on foreign policy co-sponsored by the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute and CNN.
Questions came from policy experts at the two think tanks who know their fields in and out. The questions were clear, precise and (if answered properly) would have given the candidates the opportunity to showcase their mastery of the subject and inform potential voters where they stood on the issue.
The challenge came, however, in making the candidates answer the question asked of them. Gingrich often told the questioner what the question ought to have been. Rick Perry made as many questions about immigration as he could. And Ron Paul preferred to answer specific foreign policy questions by illustrating all of the large, systemic problems of the United States.
What this highlighted, of course, is exactly how uncomfortable the candidates were in answering policy-specific questions, in part, because of how little practiced they were from previous debates.
Imagine that: focusing on policy would keep voters engaged and informed.
What else might work?