Donald Trump recently picked up a suggestion that I made last year, a suggestion that was also made by a blue-ribbon, bipartisan group of campaign hands: Presidential debates be conducted without a moderator. It’s an idea worth thinking seriously about. Removing the moderator could well make debates faster, deeper, more informative, more interesting and more revealing.
Here’s how it could be set up
One inspiration for our modern presidential debates was the famous series of forums that pitted Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas against each other in their 1858 Illinois Senate campaign. But those debates were very different from the modern versions. There was no moderator in a dominant position. Candidates spoke for extended periods, with time for rebuttal. Attention spans being what they are today, the Lincoln-Douglas format is not viable, but something like it should be – a modified chess clock debate.
The debate would be divided into one or more segments. Each segment would begin with one randomly selected candidate speaking first, and all candidates will have an allocation of time for each segment to be used when desired.
As in a chess clock debate, the candidates would optimize their own use of time – choosing to speak only as long as needed to make a point, and then preserving the rest of their time for later. Microphones would be keyed to the clock. Only the candidate actively using time would have a live mic. Although the segments could be introduced by a moderator, they could also be initiated by the candidates themselves.
Here’s how it could improve the political conversation
The potential advantages over our broken status quo make this format worth trying:
- Candidates will face the toughest questions. Who has the strongest incentive to ask Trump the hard questions? Clinton. And vice versa.
- The debate will be transparently unbiased. Only a foolish and very sore loser would blame their opponent for asking tough questions.
- Candidates can fact-check each other. The limited rebuttals of the current format will be replaced by a flexible format moderated by the clock to allow candidates to contest the other’s exaggerations.
- The debate would move faster. The current format provides an incentive for candidates to bloviate for the entire allocated time, even wandering off topic. This format will encourage candidates to preserve time for later rebuttals.
- The debate could go deeper. Now, candidates generally have to give brief answers even when the question is so important that it really requires more depth.
- The debate would be more civil. In 2012, one debate was nicknamed the “interruption debate,” and for good reason. With time and microphones linked, candidates will have less incentive (and capacity) to interrupt each other.
- The debate will be more informative. We could judge candidates not only on their answers but by their questions. If Clinton or Trump lets the other off, or avoids mentioning a crucial issue, the public and the media can hold them to account.
Here’s how it could bring in third-party candidates
Another potential advantage is that such a format would provide a seamless way to integrate minor-party candidates without giving them a disproportionate stage. If poll numbers and clock time are linked, then Libertarian Gary Johnson and Green Party nominee Jill Stein could be given a small amount of time to add their views or raise questions without overshadowing the more important contest between the Republican and Democratic nominees.
As it is, moderators are asked to do more than is really possible
Moderators in modern presidential debates are called upon to perform a heroic mix of functions – to fact-check candidates, ask tough questions, remain neutral and unbiased, and stand apart from the fray. Because of the contradictions inherent in these roles they are often criticized, sometimes justly.
Let’s give something new a try. No moderator. No outside questions. Just a clock, and two candidates explaining to us why they deserve to hold the highest elective office in the republic.
Jesse Richman is associate professor of political science and international studies at Old Dominion University.