Is There a Future for Presidential Debates?

Three 2020 debate moderators and two members of the Commission on Presidential Debates discuss lessons learned from this election cycle.

Chris Wallace binder
Fox News' Chris Wallace, during a virtual SMPA event, holds up the binder he used to prepare for the first 2020 presidential debate.
December 01, 2020

By Briahnna Brown

Fox News’ Chris Wallace went into the first 2020 presidential debate with a binder full of questions and a plan for a “deeply substantive debate.”

He was initially worried that the two candidates would not engage with each other enough, he said, mirroring periods in the Donald Trump-Hillary Clinton debate he moderated in 2016 that felt, at times, more like parallel press conferences. Mr. Wallace’s initial reaction to Mr. Trump engaging and interrupting now President-elect Joe Biden was that the country was in for a great debate.

Not long after that, he said, he realized that things were getting out of control.

“Looking back at 90-minutes in, you can sit there and say, ‘well, my gosh, this was a mess,’ but you didn't know that at each step along the way, and you were kind of hoping that it was going to find its way back onto the tracks, and eventually it didn't,” Mr. Wallace said. “You began to realize that the president had a strategy, which he was not going to be dissuaded from, which was to interrupt and try to throw Joe Biden off.

“No matter what I did, or Joe Biden did, I certainly realized that at the end of the first segment, the first 15 minutes, that I had a problem,” he said. “The debate had a problem, and the country had a problem because they'd come in, listening for a debate, and they were hearing something else.”

Mr. Wallace discussed his reflections on the debate during a virtual panel hosted by the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs. The Monday-night event, which SMPA’s Frank Sesno moderated, also included Susan Page, who moderated the vice-presidential debate, and Kristen Welker, who moderated the second and final presidential debate.

Ms. Page said that she had similar struggles moderating the vice-presidential debates, especially when it came to managing time and getting the candidates to answer her questions. She was reluctant to ask Vice President Mike Pence questions because whenever she figuratively gave him the microphone, she said, she had a lot of trouble getting it back.

She also wanted to make sure that Kamala Harris got close to equal time, she said, so following up to get either candidate to answer her questions more directly would not have allowed that.

“If I had to do it over again, I think I probably would have been more aggressive to cut Pence off,” Ms. Page said. “If it's going to take you minutes and minutes more to get the mic back, is that serving the interest for the general debate? You could argue that, but my decision on the spot was no, we'd move on, we'd let the question stand on its own.”

Kristen Welker

Kristen Welker shared her experiences moderating the second presidential debate using multiple clocks to keep the time under control.

The co-chairs of the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), Frank Fahrenkopf Jr. and Kenneth Wollack, also spoke during the event about some of the decisions that were made to improve the presidential debate after Mr. Wallace’s.

One of those improvements was adding a mute button for the second presidential debate, Mr. Fahrenkopf said, which came after public outcry asking why the CPD did not do something to prevent the first debate from getting out of control. They voted unanimously to implement a mute button function that allowed each candidate to speak for two uninterrupted minutes at the beginning of each segment, which was a rule the candidates violated in the first debate, Mr. Fahrenkopf said. They also decided that the mute button could not be used beyond those first two minutes to ensure that viewers could still see engagement between the two candidates and assess them on the debate stage.

“I've learned that the American people want to like their president,” Mr. Fahrenkopf said. “They're not always going to vote for who they think is the smartest, but they want to like their president, and…that whole 90 minutes, they're listening to get informed about the issues, but they're also getting a chance to look at these candidates to see their character, their composure, whether they have dignity, respect, integrity. They're making a judgment on these people.”

Knowing that the CPD could use the mute button helped the second presidential debate go more smoothly than the first, Ms. Welker said, but Mr. Trump also went into this debate with a different strategy than the first, which she said is likely because the approach during the first debate hurt his campaign.

Even though debates are very different from interviews, Ms. Welker said, she prepared for this debate as reporters do: She started calling people across the country. She spoke with a teacher in Pasadena, Calif., a small business owner in Baltimore, a family living next to an oil rig in Port Arthur, Texas, and undecided voters in swing states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio. Ms. Welker said she had these off-the-record conversations to get a feel for what issues mattered the most to her audience.

“I sat down to write these questions about what voters cared about, and I really wanted the debate to not be a Washington debate,” Ms. Welker said. “I wanted it to be a debate that, yes, if you are in Washington and you're steeped in all of these issues, you felt like you got something from it, but that if you were just tuning in for the first time, you could understand what we were talking about.”

Presidential debates may need to change in the future, Mr. Fahrenkopf said, for example, starting earlier in the year to better accommodate voting by mail if that becomes more of a staple in the electoral process. The CPD will meet in the spring to discuss what did and did not work in 2020, Mr. Fahrenkopf said, and what types of things they could implement to improve the process.

Mr. Sesno, the SMPA director of strategic initiatives, said that he hopes people consider the amount of work that goes into the debate process, which is critical to a free democracy because it allows the public to challenge those in power.

“Think about what it would be like to never have two candidates stand on a stage with some extemporaneous moment on which they have to act, interact, react, and what we would lose, and what that means,” Mr. Sesno. “These debates bring moments, defining moments, to our politics. This year, both candidates revealed some of their own personality and humanity, and people judged accordingly.”

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