Blue-ribbon group pushes for 2016 debate changes
By: Mike Allen
November 27, 2013 07:14 AM EST
Top officials from past presidential campaigns have quietly formed a group to push for major changes in the general election debates, with recommendations expected by late spring.
The working group is questioning the debates’ format, moderator-selection process and location: Might a TV studio make more sense than a college town? Members said a major goal is to make more allowance for changing technology and the rise of social media. A likely recommendation is an earlier start for the debates, in response to the increase in absentee voting.
Members include the longtime lead debate negotiator for each party: Bob Bauer for Democratic nominees and Ben Ginsberg for the Republicans. So the Annenberg Working Group on Presidential General Election Debates could have a profound effect on the signature fall events of the race for the White House. The group’s co-chairs were top debate-prep advisers to each of the 2012 nominees: Anita Dunn for President Obama, and Beth Myers for Mitt Romney.
The group is sponsored by the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, debate expert and Annenberg professor, leads the study.
Myers said the group had its genesis in a conversation she had with Dunn at a post-election forum held by Jamieson: “We were chatting about: Are we doing the moderators correctly? Is the timing right? Is the format right? What is the involvement of new media? Are they even being held in the right place? We were all sort of unhappy to be in Hempstead, N.Y., in October.” Jamieson said: “We’re not saying something is broken and we’re trying to fix it. We’re saying there’s an enormous potential here for voter learning and asking if there’s a way to increase the number of people who benefit from that.”
Other participants are: Robert Barnett, Joel Benenson, Ron Klain and Michael Sheehan for Democrats; and Charlie Black, Rick Davis, Jim Perry and Stuart Stevens for the GOP.
The group has met twice this fall, both times at Annenberg. A session earlier this month included (some in person and some remotely) network officials who could discuss broadcast and pool issues; former campaign advance officials; and representatives of social-media companies. Dunn said the group remains at the information-gathering stage.
“Everything is on the table,” she said. “The premise of the group is that presidential debates are a good thing — they’re one of the unifying experiences in the presidential election. But how do you adapt for new technologies and new audiences, and the way campaigns have changed? How do you make sure that this very valuable institution continues to evolve to serve the greatest number of voters?”
The group has been talking with the Commission on Presidential Debates about the study’s intentions, and plans to meet next month with the commission’s co-chairmen, Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr. and Michael D. McCurry, and the executive director, Janet H. Brown. The group also plans a session with people who represent the view of non-major parties, to discuss third-party and independent candidates.
The commission’s defenders point out that ratings were strong in 2012, and the formats have been tweaked to include unstructured exchanges between the candidates.
McCurry said the commission welcomes “good, creative thinking”: “My only caution is that campaigns like to control everything. These are not going to be rehearsed, talking-point events under the control of the candidates. These are not events that are going to be risk-free for the campaigns.”
Former FCC Chairman Newton Minow, a commission board member who has been involved in every presidential debate back to 1960, appeared by teleconference at one of the working group meetings, to discuss debate history. Minow told us by phone from his Chicago home that the debates can do a better job of reaching young people through digital media. He added that no matter what tinkering is done with the logistics, he is comforted by the fact that the debates “have reached a point where a candidate can’t avoid them.”