Paul S. Hayes The Democratic debates are essentially competitive press conferences. Voters deserve more.

An intercollegiate debate coach explains how the format lets candidates repeat talking points rather than be challenged to defend their ideas.
Image: Empty lecterns before the start of the first debate of the 2016 Presidential Election at Hofstra University in New York on Sept. 26, 2016.
Empty lecterns before the start of the first debate of the 2016 Presidential Election at Hofstra University in New York on Sept. 26, 2016.Mark Peterson / for NBC News
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By Paul S. Hayes, director of debate at The George Washington University

In my experience as an intercollegiate debate coach, best practices for organizing debates generally include the following: Choose a topic on one central question to ensure depth of preparation and discussion. Provide the topic to debaters in advance to promote research and well-developed arguments. Allow only a handful of participants or teams in order to boost opportunities for engagement among those on stage. Alternate the order of speakers between those with different views to promote direct confrontation.

Unfortunately, the approach for presidential primary debates might be described as worst practices, ones that usually emphasize flash over substance. The chosen format for the first Democratic debate on Wednesday and Thursday night, as has been true in previous years, strongly favors candidates already doing well in the polls by actively impeding the types of exchanges that might be most informative to potential voters.

Presidential debates should take a page from the collegiate debate playbook to more seriously challenge the candidates.

In fact, the result is more akin to a competitive joint press conference than a debate. And that’s a shame. In a world of tightly controlled media access, debates have the potential to provide unparalleled insights by pulling candidates off their talking points into unscripted exchanges demonstrating their strengths and weaknesses as communicators, as well as that of their ideas. Presidential debates should take a page from the collegiate debate playbook to more seriously challenge the candidates and force them to engage with each other on the substance of issues.

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While presidential debates seldom, if ever, determine general elections — most viewers have already picked their preferred candidate and are watching to cheer on their pick — there’s evidence that primary debates are a different animal. Primary voters are more likely to tune in with open minds to evaluate candidates who are often largely unknown to them. Primary debates may be many candidates’ first opportunity to address a national audience and, potentially, catapult themselves into contention.

As such, there is a lot on the line as 20 of the Democratic candidates engage in two nights of debate on NBC News, MSNBC and Telemundo. In the 2016 Democratic primary debates, roughly twice as many viewers tuned into the first debate as tuned into all but one of the primary debates that followed. First impressions matter, and for candidates flailing in the polls and with fundraising, the debates may be their only chance to break out.

But instead of maximizing the unique opportunities that debates provide voters to assess the candidates, the scheduled primary debates will jump from topic to topic, reducing the likelihood of discussions pushing past talking points to a deeper, more meaningful examination of candidates’ ideas. This problem will be exacerbated in the opening debate by the fact that there will be 10 candidates on stage both nights, each with their own agenda and little interest in pursuing opponents’ lines of argument to their logical conclusions. Further crowding the stage will be not one but three moderators.

The most likely result? A superficial discussion that rarely moves past candidates’ prepared material. We will hear their life stories. We will see front-runners play it safe by “staying on message” and concentrate on avoiding a race-imperiling mistake. We will see the competitors using any opening to deliver a prepared zinger in the hopes of spawning a coveted “viral moment.”

It is unfair to judge political debates entirely by the same standards used to assess academic debates, of course, because the goals are different. Academic debate prioritizes improving both participants’ and observers’ understanding of issues while demonstrating and developing their ability to analyze and communicate complicated ideas. In contrast, political debates are intended to support electoral processes. In these initial primary debates, the desired electoral process demands that 20 different candidates have an equal opportunity to introduce themselves to primary voters.

But the need to spotlight a large field of candidates doesn't mean there are no options for at least somewhat improving the format and substance of the debates, both to give voters more insight into the candidates and to better educate the audience on the subjects at hand.

One obvious improvement that should be adopted: pick a single, focused topic. The current proposal for a primary debate dedicated to discussing climate change, for instance, would not only be more valuable for evaluating the candidates’ abilities but also would promote a better understanding of arguably the most important political issue of our time.

Even without holding a debate on just one topic, as intercollegiate tournaments usually do, there are other ways to provide more productive sparring. Candidates could be required to submit position statements on topic questions in advance of the debates, as well as any research or evidence they plan on referring to during the debates, so that opposing candidates might be more prepared to engage and rebut their arguments. This would also allow for direct match-ups of candidates with opposing perspectives and more back-and-forths based on the substance of issues rather than personal attacks and one-liners.

We will see the competitors using any opening to deliver a prepared zinger in the hopes of spawning a coveted “viral moment.”

Finally, although it is understandable for organizers to err on the side of over-inclusion at this stage, debates going forward should include fewer candidates, or separate them into tiers to promote head-to-head competition between front-runners. Regardless of format, 12 minutes of speaking time (the average amount per candidate with 10 participants) during a two-hour debate is inadequate to assess a candidate for an office as important as president of the United States.

At its best, debate is a process of creative destruction. Debaters show up with a plan and carefully honed talking points. But, as in war, no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy. At least, it shouldn’t. Instead, debate should be a learning process through which weak arguments are exposed and discarded, and strong arguments identified and refined. Presidential debates can do more to achieve these goals, and hopefully will as the race goes on.