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A Timeless Debate Format? Or a Dated One?

Updated 5:08 p.m.
By Jose Antonio Vargas
One thing is clear after last night's duel at Belmont University: Televised presidential debates are stuck in the 20th century.

A record amount of money has been raised online. Many of the most-viewed clips on video-sharing sites such as YouTube and Hulu, to name just two, are politics-oriented. (Sen. Barack Obama's 37-minute speech on race has been viewed nearly 5 million times on YouTube alone.) Voters following this campaign online are so anxious about Nov. 4 -- and so hungry for any semblance of interaction with the man who would govern them -- that at least 25,000 questions were submitted online for Tuesday night's showdown. Earlier reports put the number of submitted questions at six million; the must-click-on site debunked that figure. Whatever the number, by the end of the evening, NBC News's Tom Brokaw, who played time-keeper as much as moderator, had selected only four questions from the online heap.

Judging by the ethos of the political Web -- where answers to complicated questions don't come in two-minute soundbites -- the second of three presidential debates offered more of the same, online political observers say.

The same face asking nearly predictable questions. The same canned, almost scripted responses from Sen. John McCain and Obama, who at times ignored Brokaw's questions. The same debate format.

Wholly different era.

Early in August, when the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) teamed up with MySpace to bring the debates to our new media age,The Trail asked what role interactivity plays in these televised debates. "This partnership is consistent with our educational mission in using the Internet in a way that fully realizes the potential of the debates," CPD's Janet Brown said at the time. Added MySpace's Lee Brenner: "One of the our goals is to not distract from the integrity of the debates while still being inclusive in the process."

But did voters learn more about the candidates after last night's debate?

Was the town hall format as inclusive as it could have been?

What was the difference in moderating style between Brokaw and Jim Lehrer -- and how will Bob Schieffer, who moderates the next debate, differ?

Is there any way for voters to be more fully engaged in the final presidential debate, scheduled for Oct. 15?

The primaries brought us a slew of innovations in debates: the CNN/YouTube debates, the MTV/MySpace instant-messaging forums, the HuffingtonPost/Yahoo/Slate mash-ups and TechPresident's Not all of them worked. Each offered lessons.

Together, they signaled an irreversible shift in campaigning to the kind of two-way communication that many voters have grown to expect. The CNN/YouTube debates, in particular, were thrilling to watch and participate in. They allowed a diverse set of everyday Americans from across the country -- not limited to voters seated in a town hall -- to ask a variety of questions in creative ways. Yes, it made for better television. But, more importantly, it brought the debate format into the 21st century, where it belongs.

"In an ideal new media world, we'd open up the debates in several ways, each taking advantage of the Web's economy of abundance," Micah Sifry, co-founder of the non-partisan said, minutes after last night's debate. For one, Sifry said, candidates need more time to respond. "The whole notion that we should judge presidential candidates on how they answer in 90 seconds, or that major issues can be boiled down to 90 seconds, is ridiculous. TV time is scarce, but online there's no need for such arbitrary constraints."

Sifry went on to describe how debates could adapt to our changing media ecology.

"We'd involve the public directly, and in real time, in judging how well the candidates are answering the questions being asked, and we'd include that information in aggregate form. Showing a dial-test line from uncommitted voters in Ohio is just one step in that direction," he added, referring to CNN's innovation. "There's no reason why we can't invite everyone to express their responses, in real time, using everything from the Web to old fashioned dial-up phones. And that real-time feedback would be fed back into the debate loop, for the candidates to address. If millions of viewers think a candidate isn't really answering the question, maybe this way we'll get them to be more responsive."

Last year David Colarusso helped run TechPresident's 10Questions, a cross-partisan effort to get candidates to respond to voter questions online. After the CPD-MySpace partnership was announced in August, Colarusso launched, which he said is an effort to bring substance to the debate process. Via video, voters can post and prioritize questions for McCain and Obama. Currently, there are 24 questions on the site.

"How we decide to use the Internet today is what we'll be left with tomorrow. If we can go from the YouTube debates ... to circa 1996 e-mail questions, it's safe to say we have squandered a great opportunity," said Colarusso. "Sure the Net has helped candidates raise money and mobilize voters, but is that all we want? What about moving the discussion from soundbites towards substance? And if we can't do it now, at a time when we are defining the Internet's role in politics, what makes us think we'll succeed in the future?"

This is one in a series of online columns on our growing "clickocracy," in which we are one nation under Google, with e-mail and video for all. Please send suggestions, comments and tips to vargasj@washpost. com.

By Web Politics Editor  |  October 8, 2008; 10:18 AM ET
Categories:  B_Blog , The Clickocracy , The Debates  
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George W Bush, according to Gallup, now officially has the highest job DISAPPROVAL rating in the history of the Gallup poll (70%). He now has one more polling record to break before he hits complete bottom.

Bush's job APPROVAL rating at 25% is still above Nixon's when he was kicked out of office (24%) and Truman's all time low (22%).

If you voted for biggest loser in modern history and soon to be in all of polling history, you need to leave this forum in shame. You haven't shown enough intelligence to be worthy of criticism of other any human being's decisions.

GWB is a sorry excuse for a President. McBush is cut from the same cloth. It is no surprise, if you voted for the first bottom feeder, that you would be willing to vote for the 2nd.

Please, step away from the voting booth before you hurt us all.

Posted by: DougH1 | October 8, 2008 10:14 PM | Report abuse

What we witnessed last night was another old asinine pathetic performance by this erratic old man, especially when he referred Obama as"That one" As an independent voter and war veteran at one time I respected McCain now when I see him spewing diarrhea from his mouth I vomit

Posted by: capskip | October 8, 2008 1:23 PM | Report abuse

I think that too many people are viewing this as a recreational activity. Mostly these are a partisans who want their candidate to crush the other one.

I am in partial agreement with cgallaway2000 | October 8, 2008 11:06 AM . His format for addressing suggested changes is a good one.
I think that

1 The audience of uncommitted should vote whether the candidate answered the question that was asked. If 55% feel the answer is no he should be given an additional period to do so. At the end of the debate the candidate that has used the least amount of time to answer questions shall be given given extra time to talk on the issue that he wants to talk about.

2. A buzzer should go off 15 sec after the time limit has been reached and it will continue until the candidate is quiet.

3. I agree that misrepresenting the opposing candidates positions is detrimental but any remedy I see will be as harmful as the problem itself so I can not see that changing.

4. I think that giving specifics of a plan are unnecessary unless it is part of answer the question asked. In that case the remedy is in 1.

5. I totally disagree that hitting the talking points is unwanted. I agree that it is repetitious but the candidate needs to orient the people to his point of view. The candidate must still meet the burden of answering the question.

I think that the penalty for not answering the question is sufficiently great that much of the behavior that cgallaway2000 complains about would vanish if a penalty was instituted. Maybe an award for being the least evasive could be given if the difference in responsiveness was really significant.

Posted by: Gator-ron | October 8, 2008 1:00 PM | Report abuse

Differences in health care matter so very little when you realize that we are being sold out to the tune of at LEAST 7,000 dollars per person to bail out Wall Street fat cats, thanks ObaMaCain! These difference really pale when you realize that both parties are cooperatively plunging us into Depression, into war, into destruction of our civil liberties. This was done in unison, as they pretend opposition. Read, research, look up Nader, Marcy Kaptur, Kucinich, Ron Paul and listen to what is happening with the economy and this bailout.

Posted by: jennycat | October 8, 2008 12:39 PM | Report abuse

The difference in the health care insrance plans for the two candidates is greater than any other issue.

McCain's plan does not address pre-existing illnesses. McCain's plan does not address getting the uninsured on the insured rolls in significant numbers. McCains plan will allow health insurance companies to all move to the state whose laws are most favorable to the insurer. All three of these disadvantages effect health care and not health care insurance costs.

Younger purchasers will do better (slightly over the shorter term but will be exposing themselves when they are older to higher costs. Not discussed but of concern is that insurance rates for your insurance company could go up for reasons of a buy out and the need to make up for those costs. If that happens and you have developed a pre-existing condition you are out of luck.

Remember unlike any other insurance where the payoff is simply in money in health insurance it may also be in your well being. This s something more than insurance on your dwelling.

Posted by: Gator-ron | October 8, 2008 12:18 PM | Report abuse

See Out Takes From Last Nights Debate, Obama and McCain practicing for the debate and the mistakes they made.

Watch a video of McCain dropping the F-Bomb
in a video

I just saw a new poll come out....Dream tickets for the president. Huckabee/Palin comes out 5 to 1 over McCain/Palin. Perhaps the RNC should switch out McCain for Huckabee, they might have a better chance at the white house this year cause I just can't see Obama loosing at this point. The problem is news stations are already calling the race for Obama.....switch it up and have a chance, or should we all stay home and just let Obama take the white house? see poll at

Posted by: pastor123 | October 8, 2008 12:08 PM | Report abuse

These "debates" are just a series of speeches and talking points. We don't need a tape recorder for President.

A true debate is when both candidates talk directly to each other in a civilized fashion. Ask each other questions. Point out misinterpretations or errors.
All the moderator does is moderate:
1. set the topic for the next ... minutes
2. ensure equal time
3. stop them from talking at the same time when it happens.

That's the only way the public can judge who is better informed, who sticks to the point, who is better at analyzing and synthesizing, and who is most convincing.

Because those are the qualities the winner will need to lead.

Posted by: winnetoo | October 8, 2008 11:52 AM | Report abuse

I agree with you. I don't see why they stuck to 1.5 hours. Thats 4.5 hours of national televised time for the American people to decide the next 4 years of their lives. I think that the majority of the people would be alright missing Desperate Housewive, or whatever their show is, for more time for them to debate.

Posted by: beaversrus | October 8, 2008 11:44 AM | Report abuse

No amount of "technological innovation" is going to fix the fundamental problem of Two Party Tyranny, brought to you by the Commission on Presidential Debates and major networks. We don't even know the rules that they make in secret, but we do know that they set a high bar of 15% in order to exclude our voices and choices, third party candidates and viewpoints that might challenge their shared corporate viewpoint. (Visit the site Opendebates for more info) We need REAL debates, without gatekeeping moderators, filtered and prescreened questions and corporate vetted puppet candidates. These debates are a fraud and a travesty. So are all "organizations" and "news outlets" that blackout third party and independent candidates, siphoning the public into two party tyranny which is really no choice at all. Polls are also lying, like the Gallup Poll who are simply push-polling for Two Party Tyranny. This is how they get the American People to support canidates who will sell us out to Wall Street to the tune of at least 700 billion dollars! After what has just happened, demand real debates and argumentation amongst the candidates, including Ralph Nader who long ago predicted this financial meltdown and opposed this Sell Out to Wall Street. Enough's enough!

Posted by: jennycat | October 8, 2008 11:42 AM | Report abuse

Sen. John McCain clearly won last night's debate.

Democrats for John McCain and Sarah Palin in 2008.

Posted by: hclark1 | October 8, 2008 11:28 AM | Report abuse

>The polls show that most of the country/viewers were unhappy with the debate. Neither candidate really answered with specifics.

How could they when Tom Brokaw keep calling time and not allowing substantive rebutals.

Obama won it in any event.

Posted by: Dano111 | October 8, 2008 11:23 AM | Report abuse

The polls show that most of the country/viewers were unhappy with the debate. Neither candidate really answered with specifics.
Healthcare -
Obama's plan would cost a ridiculous amount of money, and to give the entire country Tri-Care Premium (around $50-75K per person) I don't see how its feasible.
McCain's plan would basically give tax breaks for people to buy their own, with $5k, and the average healthcare individual plan costs $20k. Thats not feasible to the middle class.

Economy -
Obama's plan is a lot more feasible, but again how will he pay for it. $10 billion from the Iraq war won't really even make a dent.
McCain's plan to help out the housing market is pretty much the exact same thing Biden said in the VP debate. Showing he's a little lost with reality and a serious lack of independent thought.

Overall, I thought Obama was slightly more clear. However, we all know McCain needed a big win to stop the momentum, and he didn't deliver that.

Posted by: beaversrus | October 8, 2008 11:17 AM | Report abuse

I think for this format to work, both participants need to:

1)Answer the question that WAS asked, instead of answering a question that wasn't asked.
2)Respect time limits
3)Respect each other and quit lying about each other's Records
4)Give specifics of your plan instead of saying "I know how to fix it" and then not telling us how you would fix it.
5) Quit hitting campaign talking points like a zombie.

Posted by: cgallaway2000 | October 8, 2008 11:06 AM | Report abuse

This is a thoughtful column, but I still don't understand how to marry the "collective event" of a time-limited 90-minute (or even 2-hour) TV debate viewed by 50-70 million Americans, with the limitless time available on the Internet but actually accessible only to a much smaller number, whether because they have less time or less computer acces. 50-70 million is a lot more than those 5 million hits on Youtube for the race speech (and I know some of those Youtube hits are repeat viewers because it's a speech that bears repeating).

I was shocked while visiting relatives this summer in rural New York, including a high-school teacher, to learn that it was a waste of time to get their e-mails because they almost never check their computer. Going to an online only format would shut out huge segments of the voting public, not just people who literally don't have a computer at all. And yet, again, staying on TV immediately limits the time and thus limits the length of answers and discussions.

I think what has really happened here is that the "mainstream media" has lost its cocky self-confidence that its appointed moderators can ask whatever they want and won't be subject to criticism. The question about Kitty Dukakis being attacked was shocking and actually was criticized at the time, but short of that, moderators used to be able to ask really unexpected, out-of-the-box questions -- or to cull those from "townhall" or e-mail participants -- without being questioned. Remember Gwen Ifill's question to Cheney and Edwards about the rate of AIDS among black women? (They both blew the answer.) This year, anything unexpected is interpreted as "tilting" toward Obama or McCain, so the questions are so predictable as to be outright bland.

Posted by: fairfaxvoter | October 8, 2008 11:05 AM | Report abuse

...Why didnt McCaint talk about his running "nurse" peeeuuu Palin?

Neo-cons...please answer why his "pig" with lipstick was not mentioned......

Could it be because of 1200 dollar rape kits

Could it be because of the Alaskan Independence Party?

Could it be because of the Alaskan Independence Party sympathized with Timothy McVeigh.

Could it be because of AIP Founder Joe Vogel: “The fires of hell are frozen glaciers compared to my hatred for the American government", “and I won't be buried under their damn flag." (Joe Vogel is buried in Canada.)

Could it be because of Vogels' rantings of ....“I’m an Alaskan, not an American. I've got no use for America or her damned institutions." Joe Vogel – Founder.

Could it be because of Dexter Clark, vice chairman of the A.I.P.: refers to the American soldiers in Alaska as "occupying troops."

Could it be because of Michael Hill, a representative of A.I.P., stated on Glen Beck’s program that the goal of the A.I.P. is to dissolve the United States and the Constitution.

Could it be because of a rally in Ft. Myers Monday, a crowd member screamed, "Kill Him" as Sarah laughed and cheered with the crowd.

Could it be because of a fake skinheaded sherriff waddles to the podium after peeeuuu and calls out Barack Hussein Obama to the crowd to further boos and chants of kill him...on Monday

Could it be because of a McCain rally, he asked, "Who is Barack Obama?" and a crowd member yelled out "Terrorist" as McCain held that silly smirk on his addled face.

Could it be because of the reprehensible type of political campaigning is typical of the desperation the Republican Party finds itself in, as their numbers in the polls fall like the stock market...and now even further...

Could it be because of the Alaskan Drug Enforcement report under Palin proved uneffective...

...Or could it be that McCaint forgot who she was.......

Posted by: AlexP1 | October 8, 2008 10:46 AM | Report abuse

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