Insults Are Up, Moderator Control Is Down, Says Presidential Debate Study

Interruptions, crosstalk, insults and loss of moderator control in presidential debates since 2004 have all increased so drastically that today’s faceoffs seem more like free-for-alls than discussions of key issues affecting Americans.

That’s the conclusion of new research that quantifies the interruptions and insults in presidential debates from 2004 through 2020, and finds that both have increased drastically.

The study, released Thursday, comes a week before the first scheduled, prime-time debate between President Biden and ex-President Trump next Thursday (June 27) on CNN.

The study also takes TV networks and journalists to task for caring more about how certain subjects, questions and answers will play on TV than whether or not they inform and benefit Americans who are still undecided about who to vote for.



“Journalist-led debates result in more ‘gotcha’ questions with a focus on hot-button issues rather than policy platforms,” said the study titled “Discourse Correction: What’s Wrong with the Presidential Debates, and How to Fix Them” from The Open To Debate Foundation in association with Princeton University’s Center for the Study of Democratic Politics.

For the study, researchers watched all 14 presidential debates spread over the election years 2004 (Bush-Kerry), 2008 (Obama-McCain), 2012 (Obama-Romney), 2016 (Trump-Hillary Clinton) and 2020 (Biden-Trump).

Among the findings: Moderators lost control only once in the three debates of 2004, 58 times in the two debates of 2020.

In 2004, the study counted only one instance where a candidate interrupted or crosstalked over the other one. In 2020, there were 76 such interruptions in just one of the debates.

The researchers counted only five personal attacks in all nine debates in 2004, 2008 and 2012, and 61 such attacks in 2016 and 2020 (22 attacks and 39 attacks, respectively).

Here is what passed for a “personal attack” in 2004, according to the study. Bush accused Kerry of having “no record of leadership.”

Kerry said the Bush administration committed “a failure of presidential leadership not to reauthorize the assault weapons ban.” And that was it.

In 2016, in just one example, Trump called Clinton “a nasty woman.” And Clinton said, “Donald thinks belittling women makes him big.”

Candidates evading and basically not answering questions has long dogged the presidential debates. The study counted 13 such instances over three debates in 2004, and 19 in the two debates of 2020.

The study also found that changes in debate formats in 2016 resulted in some issues and areas simply not being addressed.

“Prior to 2016, six out of nine debates were devoted specifically to domestic or foreign policy,” said the study.

“In 2016 and 2020, the debates were redesigned to address all policy areas. As a result, vital foreign policy and national security issues were glossed over. Eleven out of 32 legislatively defined policy areas were not substantially discussed across all 14 debates.”

The study placed the blame on TV networks and their journalists who make up the debate panels and ask the questions.

“Topic selection and framing are critical elements of successful debates, but this analysis shows that networks and journalists are missing the editorial mark,” the study said.

But the study found that this was not the case when the debates were held in Town Hall settings in which an audience of non-journalists composed and asked the questions.

“The Town Hall formats yielded better diversity of topics and covered what matters to Americans, not what drives ratings in the newsroom,” the study concluded.

“Expertise in framing questions according to formal debate best practices should be used,” said the study, “not television broadcast standards which are designed for rapid fire, short segments.”

For next week’s debates, new rules spearheaded by CNN will include “muted microphones to ensure each candidate’s uninterrupted speaking time and the absence of a live audience to minimize external disruptions,” CNN said.

“Microphone muting works,” said the study, referring to its use in a more limited fashion in the second of the two debates in 2020.

In the second debate, “microphones were muted for initial two-minute speeches between Trump and Biden as a result of excessive crosstalk in [the first debate], resulting in only four instances of crosstalk as opposed to 76 in the first debate.”

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