Staff Editorial: Presidential debate format offers no new discourse, campaign trajectory

On Friday Sept. 28, The New York Times reported that, as part of his debate prep, former Gov. Mitt Romney has a “series of zingers that he has memorized and has been practicing on aides since August.” This is yet another glaring example that the current debate status quo is an inadequate way to further political discourse during the election season.

With three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate occurring less than one month prior to the election, the question is: What is wrong with the political climate that candidates are more concerned with “zingers” than effectively addressing key policies?

Not that Romney is alone – the same article from The New York Times stressed that the main concern of President Barack Obama’s campaign team is when he will have time to prepare, not exactly what he is preparing.

The fact that both candidates have ample time to prepare their scripted responses to the generic questions that will surprise no one leaves little likelihood that the debates will provide any new or productive information. Too scared to stray off message, the candidates will simply rehash the same points and platitudes both campaigns have spewed for months on end.

Just look at the Oct. 3 presidential debate. Both Romney and Obama consistently mimicked the arguments they’ve made throughout the campaign. The first segment of the debate was seemingly dedicated to Obama insisting Romney’s plan includes $5 trillion in tax cuts, and Romney insisting it doesn’t. That kind of back-and-forth discourse leads nowhere productive.

In reality, however, not all the blame lies with the candidates. With the exception of a few outliers, there is little evidence that debate performances have much impact on presidential elections. One study, which included publically available poll data from every election between 1952 and 2008, came to the conclusion that “the best prediction from the debates is the initial verdict before the debates.”

What matters is the media coverage after the debates: The repetition of video clips and sound bites played over and over. So yes, it is in Romney’s best interest to practice his zingers; an expertly landed jab at Obama will garner media attention, no matter how lacking of substance it may be.

Most presidential debate viewers already have their minds made up. Those supporting Obama will believe he came out the victor, and vice versa for Romney supporters. There is not much either candidate can say or do to change that.

This is why something else needs to change the way the current system operates. The media latches on to policy-free quips because American citizens demand nothing more.

There was no outrage when Romney’s running mate U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan said he “doesn’t have the time” to explain their policy because it is simply the way things work – all talk and no substance.