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How to improve our presidential debates in one easy step: Make the clock a moderator

- December 16, 2015

At their best, debates serve democracy: They highlight candidates’ strengths and flaws and provide a forum for candidates to explain their positions or debunk the claims of others. Unfortunately, in the minds of many Americans, debates fall short of these ideals.

The Republican debate on Dec. 15, 2015, was likely no exception, as it encountered many of the same problems as those of previous debates. Candidates talked over each other and the moderators in pursuit of precious camera time.

So it’s time we gave debate rules and technology some closer thought. I propose creating a market or auction for debate time that makes the clock a moderator.

Here’s how it works. Each candidate will enter the debate with a known and finite amount of time to speak. The choice of when to utilize that time to speak will be at the discretion of the candidate. As a result, candidates will have an incentive to use their time more wisely, knowing that it could run out.

The key technology would be a computerized microphone control system linked to something akin to a multi-player chess clock. Candidates would push a button to activate the microphone, and then enter the line to speak.

If candidates wanted jump the queue and speak next, they would slide a control at the podium to exchange one minute of allocated time for less than a minute of actual speaking time. In a sense, the candidate for whom speaking next is most precious will speak next.

Once the microphone goes live, the clock starts counting down. Turn the microphone off and the clock stops. When time is up, the microphone won’t turn on.

This would have several benefits:

  • No longer will candidates have an incentive to stretch to 90 seconds an answer that could be shorter. This will accelerate the pace of the debate: More questions will be asked and answered.
  • Even as the debate pace accelerates, discussion will gain depth. If all candidates want to address their tax plans, and then to respond and rebut each other, then the candidates can do so – moderators won’t get to ask another question until the candidates in line have spoken.
  • Candidates can also ask each other questions and challenge each other more readily. The current disincentive that challenging an opponent gives them camera time will be removed.
  • Voters will get better information. In primary debates featuring a lot of candidates, topics are often cut short before all candidates who would like to speak have spoken. Voters are left with an incomplete basis for comparison. With the clock moderating, all candidates will have an opportunity to enter on all questions if they wish (and if they have managed time efficiently). And a candidate’s failure to address a topic will also become informative.

So how would time be allocated to candidates before the debate starts? This is an open question. The initial time allocation could be equal – or it could be unequal, perhaps allocated as a function of how well candidates are polling.

And if we did allocate debate time based on poll numbers, this would allow minor-party candidates on stage without providing a disproportionate platform to those with little support and less chance at victory.

Moreover, I doubt that ratings would suffer under this format. Indeed, one might expect viewers will stay at the edge of their seats. Not only will debate often go faster, but for both political junkies and casual observers, time management will add a new element of strategy and intensity.

Like fans watching the final minutes of a football match, viewers will know which candidates have the ball, and who is low on time. And a debate where candidates more often question and challenge each other is likely to be more surprising and dynamic.

Overall, creating a market for debate time, and making the clock a moderator, will yield debates that are more intense and more productive for democracy. Candidates will manage their moments on camera for maximum impact, and voters will win as a result.

Jesse Richman is associate professor of political science and geography at Old Dominion University.