Making the Presidential Debate Brackets Work

Making the Presidential Debate Brackets Work

Yesterday, I proposed changing the way we select and handle the debates among candidates for nomination for president to make them more relevant and to manage what I believe is more than an anomaly of an extraordinarily large field of contenders. What I proposed (along with my son, Josh) was a “bracket” system not unlike what the NCAA uses in its basketball championship competitions for men and women each spring.

I call it the Presidential Debate Bracket System (PDBS).

It’s more than a vague idea, too. Here’s how I think it could work.

  1. Instead of trying to narrow the field in some fashion that, ultimately, ends up questionable statistically and politically, set the bar low. Candidates seeking the nomination of the particular political party who meet the following (or similar) criteria will be invited to participate:
    1. Officially declared candidate
    2. Campaign accounts established
    3. A threshold level of contributions (which could include self-funding)
      1. Dollar amount (how about $1 million?)
      2. Number of donors (how about 1,000?)
    4. Campaign organization
      1. Physical office
      2. Key staff
    5. Candidates who meet these criteria are paired head-to-head, with the pairing determined by their median percentage support in recent polls. The number 1 seed goes up against the last place candidate, the number 2 seed against the second-to-last, etc. If there are an odd number of candidates at any point, the top surviving seed gets a bye.
      1. If two or more candidates have the same median level of support in the polls, a random process is used to determine which candidate is placed in which of the two or three or four brackets for which the tied candidates are eligible.
    6. On “debate night,” the candidates go head-to-head for 12 minutes. Each candidate gets four consecutive minutes to question and debate his/her opponent on topics of his/her choice (the opponent, of course, gets to respond during these four minutes). Each candidate gets two minutes at the end to make summary comments.
      1. The top seed of the two candidates can either choose the order of the question period or the order of final comment. The other candidate makes the other choice.
    7. The referee for each debate simply introduces the two candidates and then aggressively controls the time. When the four minutes are up, however they were used up, the “whistle” blows. If a candidate declines to stop immediately at that point, every second over the time is deducted from his/her closing comment. If the candidate goes on for more than the two minutes they are allotted for closing, their microphone is turned off.
    8. All of these first-round brackets are completed on the first night. (With 16 candidates, this would take two hours, allowing 12 minutes per hour for whatever explanatory announcements might be necessary and for station identification/commercial breaks.)
    9. The public is invited to choose the winner of each debate by online electronic balloting. (Talk to the folks at America’s Got Talent about how to do this in a reasonably reliable and secure way, but remember, this isn’t a real vote. It’s just political reality TV.)
      1. The window for voting probably should be narrow, so that those voting are more likely those who actually viewed the debate, and so that organizational efforts, which will occur of course, would have to be really good to be effective.
    10. On the next night, or the next week, the second-round brackets are conducted on the same model, only each debate runs for 20 minutes (eight minutes of questioning by each candidate, plus two minutes for closing for each).
    11. For the semi-final and final rounds, each debate runs one hour (20 minutes of questioning by each candidate plus five-minute closing statements by each).
    12. The process is repeated periodically (every month? every six weeks?) until the nominee is determined. If all but one candidate withdraws at some point in the primary season, the debates end. If one candidate achieves a numerical lock on the nomination, the debates end. If not, then they continue right up to the convention.

One can raise all kinds of objections to this process . . . as objections have been raised to all the variations of the current process. The point is that the current system, especially with the advent of large candidate fields, is unworkable and increasingly arbitrary. Something new needs to be attempted.

The virtue of a system like the bracket system is that it gets us closer to an environment in which it is the candidate we see, not the setting or the moderator, and we see the candidate doing what a president actually spends time doing – discussing/arguing over matters of political interest. Whether it’s a policy disagreement between the president and the leader of another nation (some would say Congress fits that description) or a media interview in which the president is pressed to deal with statements he/she has made, at least the setting and interaction look something like the reality the president will face.

Furthermore, opening up the process to a broad definition of “credible” candidate will infuse the process with fresh ideas and a degree of unpredictability that, at least in my experience, also mirrors political reality. I’m not suggesting that some marginal candidate will become the nominee by this process . . . though that certainly is more plausible with this system than the current one. I am suggesting that these head-to-head contests will force serious candidates to take tough questions and engage a range of candidates on challenging topics where everyone can see how they handle themselves as well as the subject matter. That, to me, is very attractive.

Finally, the sports metaphor and tournament model may improve public understanding of the process. Politics is a game . . . one played for incredibly high stakes, to be sure, both personal and societal, but it still has all the elements of an athletic contest deeply ingrained in its structure and its rhythms. So why not use an athletic model to organize the contest that determines who the winner will be?


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