More than 10 candidates were vying for the Republican nomination in December 2011 when a conservative media outlet tried to cast reality television star Donald Trump as moderator of a primary debate.
The proposal met resistance from top contenders, who feared that a showdown modeled on “The Apprentice” might turn a political debate into a spectacle of warring personalities. “I had to kill that,” recalled Stuart Stevens, the senior strategist for Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign, one of the teams that refused to participate in the Christmas special.
Now Stevens says the aborted debate is a lesson for both parties, exposing the celebrity essence of the primary debate process, which lines candidates up behind lecterns like contestants in a game show, answering a battery of questions from a panel of high-profile journalists. This kind of performance, which Trump embraced in 2016 to ride a ratings bonanza all the way to the White House, was used in both of the first two Democratic debates this summer. It will be on display again Thursday, when 10 Democrats face off in Houston for the third debate of 12, this one hosted by ABC and Univision.
Strip away the extravagant backdrops and the dramatic intros, and the process is not so different from when primary debates began proliferating in the 1980s, alongside the growth of cable news. For years, candidates and their allies have complained about the strict time limits, the glib questions from moderators and the emphasis on conflict over substantive exchange.
The protests continued this year, with former vice president Joe Biden recently ridiculing the rules of the first two debates as, “Tell me your life story in a minute.”
“Look, I think everybody knows these aren’t debates,” he added.
Stevens said the solution is simple: “There’s no reason you can’t start from scratch.”
To the Republican strategist, that means dispensing with the networks that currently host and produce — and maintain exclusive rights to televise — the debates. Instead, parties should look to universities as partners, he said. Professors should ask the questions, but of only four candidates at a time.
Other ideas include a tech-enabled national town hall and a simulation testing how would-be presidents might respond to a crisis.
“I would do it,” Ed Rendell, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee and governor of Pennsylvania, said of various alternative proposals. “I think it’s so important to get some sanity in the process.”
The difficulty would be finding an audience, Rendell said, suggesting Amazon or another major technology company might be interested in streaming the events. (Amazon, whose chief executive, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post, did not return a request for comment about whether it would entertain the idea.)
The Democrats did not consider drastic changes going into their competitive primary, according to an official involved in planning the debates who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. The framework has grown out of intense deliberations, guided by the aim of giving their candidates a national platform while insulating the party from charges of bias, which roiled the 2016 primary.
The party has insisted on certain changes, such as no weekend debates and the inclusion of a woman and a person of color among the moderators for every showdown. To accommodate the crowded field, the party insisted on two consecutive debate nights when necessary, with random selection determining which candidates appear each night — though Thursday marks the first time this cycle that entry requirements limited the event to one night.
Otherwise, Democrats hewed to tradition.
Innovations introduced over the years serve mainly to highlight the basic uniformity of the process. Televised town halls were introduced in the general election in 1992. A revolution in the way voters consume news, with a sharp turn away from television, has spurred only modest efforts to incorporate new media, including with beamed-in YouTube questions during the 2008 cycle, mostly remembered for the anthropomorphic snowman, “Billiam,” who pressed the candidates on climate change.
Behind the glitz and glamour, the debates are largely the same. Perhaps for good reason: Primary debates still rank high among moments that voters say helped them make a decision.
“The point of debates was to bring everybody together to watch and listen and learn,” said Newton N. Minow, President John F. Kennedy’s chairman of the Federal Communications Commission and an architect of presidential debates, who famously called television a “vast wasteland.”
Now, said Minow, 93, “the country is badly divided,” in part, he added, because of the explosion of television networks, which helped propel the growth of primary debates in the 1980s.
The first primary debate, in 1948, featured New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey and former Minnesota Gov. Harold Stassen, who were competing for the Republican nomination. Their exchange, on whether to outlaw the Communist Party, was broadcast nationally by several radio networks, reaching between 40 and 80 million listeners. Each man spoke for 20 minutes, and then each had a rebuttal. Journalists watched from behind a glass wall.
It was only once cable networks entered the picture in the 1980s that primary debates multiplied, said Mitchell S. McKinney, a professor of communications at the University of Missouri. In 1988, competitive primaries in both parties produced 22 debates, he said. The number reached 43 in 2008, which was also the year Democrats set a record with 26 televised debates, McKinney said.
There was one fewer Republican debate than initially hoped in the 2012 cycle, when the planned Newsmax debate, to be broadcast on Ion Television, fell apart after Romney and others walked. Though Trump was sidelined at the time, his hope that he could make presidential politics as compelling as his ratings juggernaut has shaped the calculus of both parties.
“I think there’s an assumption that people want to see blood and guts,” said Rendell, the former DNC chair.
The need to attract viewers has bound the parties to the networks, which guarantee a delivery mechanism and assume the costs of what have become elaborate jamborees, with high-dollar venues, high-tech spin rooms and a high volume of journalists.
In 2016, partnerships with tech giants, among other businesses, helped defray the costs. Four years later, marketing opportunities have become less important for the titans of Silicon Valley, which have made their name in politics — not altogether favorably.
Democrats are encouraging distribution on social media, with some success. NBC streamed the first debate live across YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, attracting millions of viewers, and ABC will do the same on Thursday. CNN did not, preferring independence from the platforms and arguing its cable channel and website offered the best viewing experience.
CNN declined to say how much it spent on the July debates, while NBC did not return a request for comment on costs. ABC declined to say how much it expected to spend this week.
Some question whether the bells and whistles are necessary.
“The networks should not be running off and producing these things,” said Frank Fahrenkopf, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee and a co-founder and current co-chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates. The nonpartisan corporation, which took over from the League of Women Voters, oversees the rhetorical combat during the general election, which runs without network control or commercial interruption.
Rendell said he would prefer a model in which the primary season begins with four conventional debates, followed by six issue forums as the field winnows.
CNN recently devoted seven hours to a climate forum with the Democratic candidates, averaging 1.1 million viewers during the segment, a fraction of the viewership for its July debates. The second installment of NBC’s debate in June was a record for Democratic primaries, with 18.1 million viewers across NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo.
A new model might invite better ways of testing the candidates and drawing out differences among them, said Lee Drutman, a senior fellow in the political reform program at the centrist think tank New America.
One format he has advocated is crisis simulation, in which the candidates would respond in real time to a hypothetical scenario, forced to monitor public opinion, ask questions and work with advisers. In the process, he argues, contestants would “help the public understand what the president actually does.”
Other possibilities include expanding on the town hall format, which McKinney, the communications scholar, said reduces political cynicism by involving regular citizens.
He raised the prospect of a “true national town hall.” Debate sponsors already pull audience members from the community hosting the faceoff, McKinney said. “Perhaps we could draw citizens from various parts of the country, who have been affected by the topics being debated, and they could pose questions to the candidates.”
“The technology is there,” McKinney said. “What if we used it to improve the substance of debates, and not just their entertainment value?”
Cleve Wootson contributed to this report.