These examples are just some of the most astounding remarks made in presidential debates during the 2016 election cycle. Unsurprisingly, their author is singular: Donald Trump. Whether recited during rallies or written on Twitter, Trump’s off-the-cuff comments are often profane or inappropriate.
While Trump’s rhetoric in the primary debates was characterized by name-calling and insults, in the general election debates he appeared significantly more respectful. He even did his opponent the honor of addressing her by her official title, “Secretary Clinton.”
Why the stark contrast in Trump’s behavior between the primary and general election presidential debates? While the shift may have been partially motivated by a desire to appeal to moderates, I believe the differing protocols of presidential debates in the primary and general elections were also to blame.
Primary and general election presidential debates are organized and structured remarkably differently. Presidential debates are overseen by the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD). The CPD isnot controlled by any political party, does not endorse political candidates, and receives no funding from any political party or network, and the organization states that their “nonpartisan, voter education goal…is to afford the members of the public an opportunity to sharpen their views.” While chosen moderators must be experienced in television news broadcasting, the debates are not affiliated with or hosted by their moderator’s employer network. Moreover, moderators are not selected by and do not meet with campaigns; they alone select questions to be asked. Presidential debates aretelevised without any commercial breaks and are aired on multiple broadcast and cable networks.
The primary debates, however, are arranged by the two major parties and are hosted by specific cable news networks. The parties neither explain how moderators are chosen nor offer guidelines for official debate conduct. It is unclear whether moderators interact with specific campaigns or with the question-selection process. Without a publicly acknowledged debate structure, political parties grant for-profit networks enormous sway over the discourse between America’s presidential candidates.
Bringing for-profit motives into the debate ring, by contrast, undermines the purpose of voter education. Because primary debates include commercial breaks, cable networks’ desire to increase viewership and advertising revenue influences the debates. Desire for high ratings incentivizes network anchors and moderators to create a spectacle out of the debate. In fact, CNN reportedly charged forty times its normal rate for advertising spots during a Republican debate last fall. For the September 16th, 2015 Republican primary debate, CNN charged up to $200,000 for a 30-second advertisement spot.
FOX News also set a record in September 2015, with twenty-four million viewers tuning in for the first Republican primary debate. Some attributed this success to Trump’s polarizing views and unpredictably crass remarks. Trump was aware of the power of his persona and sought to take advantage of it. He acknowledged that the networks “were making a fortune on” the primary debates and in aletter to CNN wrote “While I refuse to brag,… as you know very well, this tremendous increase in viewer interest and advertising is due 100% to ‘Donald J. Trump.’”
So instead of policy and strategy, we saw an entertainment showcase, provided mostly by Trump himself. During the primaries, the moderators didn’t press Trump when he avoided their questions. He was rarely criticized or challenged for interrupting opponents or making unprofessional or bullying remarks. Networks dismissed his behavior and granted him disproportionately high speaking time despite his lack of substance.
Some might argue that the moderators didn’t know how to handle him because of his unprecedented lack of predictability. But the numbers say otherwise. In the primary debates Trump was on stage for almost 24 hours and spoke for a total of 3 hours, 20 minutes and 7 seconds – in other words, he spoke 1/8th of the debate time. Over the eleven Republican primary debates,Trump spoke longest on 6 occasions and never came in lower than third. In contrast, during the three presidential debates, Trump and Clinton’s speaking times differed, on average, by only3 minutes. If Holt, Cooper, Raddatz and Wallace were able to stifle Trump’s distinctly un-presidential behavior and maintain fair speaking times in the general debates, there is no reason that the primary moderators – many of whom work for the same networks as those aforementioned – could not have done the same.
The differing structure of the primary and presidential debates – the former partisan and revenue based and the latter non-profit – coupled with the moderators’ disparate treatment of Trump in the primary and presidential debates, leads us to a disturbing conclusion. During the primary season, networks were propping up Trump’s candidacy in an effort to sustain astonishing viewership ratings that translated into advertising revenue.
Nonetheless, it is deeply twisted that commercial motives permeate a form of discourse that is so central to our democracy. Primary debates should be as unbiased as general election debates. For if election debates are to be forums for political discourse and voter engagement, we must remove the influences of profit. Primary debates should be organized by the CPD and not by the party leadership. They should be held to the same standards as presidential debates because every stage of the presidential election is one of significance. There is more to the election than the first Tuesday of November: primary races can determine the outcome of an election.
The question remains, will parties actually cede control for the good of the public? As revealed in the DNC’s email leak favoring Clinton, political machines in our partisan government may have a vested interest in directing the results of debates and campaigns. But regardless, this is one of the most fixable flaws in our political system. If we can’t get the money out of legislation and campaign finance, let us, at Stanford and across the country, recognize its influence and remove it from a political forum that was created for the people.
This election, more than any other, has been mutilated into political theater, fueled by viewership, readership and revenue. Profit has fueled the rise of a demagogue. To me, that is the antithesis of democracy.
Note: The democratic primary debates were not exempt from similar favoritism. Clinton was long considered the chief contender in the Democratic race and was granted more attention on the debate stage than her opponents. In fact, Chafee, O’Malley and Webb were nearly invisible. Moderators failed to press Clinton on issues of her email scandal and only paid attention to Sanders when he rose in the polls. However, likely because of mainstream media’s favoritism, I was unable to find quantitative evidence that speaking time was disproportionately afforded to Clinton in the primary debates.