How Will We Decide Who Won a Presidential Debate in the Future?

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When I watched presidential debates a decade or two ago, I usually felt like it was clear how a candidate scored points in a debate. Determining who won a particular debate was often straightforward, and there didn't seem to be a lot of disagreement about it. Sure, there were extreme cases where supporters of one candidate refused to acknowledge that their candidate had been defeated, but this was not the norm. I can certainly remember watching many debates where the candidate I preferred and really wanted to win clearly lost. Things seem much different today. It isn't just that voters are far more polarized and tribalistic (although I think that is the case); it almost seems like the standards we use for evaluating debate performance have changed.

It used to be that candidates' performance in the debates changed some voters' minds. I'm not sure that is still the case. It seems like many voters now believe their candidate won no matter how their candidate performed and that all the debate does is strengthen their opinions. I suppose it is still possible that debates help undecided voters make up their minds, though I am becoming increasingly skeptical about how many undecided voters there are who are paying attention to debates. I suspect there are far fewer of these voters than our mainstream news media wants us to think.

One way to think about modern standards for judging a candidate's debate performance might be whether or not they deliver what their base wants in a debate. Even blatant lies from a candidate could be judged favorably in that light if we recognize that their base believes those lies and wants to hear them repeated by the candidate. I find that a scary thought because it suggests that truth no longer matters. It used to be that a candidate who got up on the debate stage and engaged in blatant lying would pay a political price for doing so. I'm not sure that is the case today, though it might depend on the candidate.

And what of the fact-checking most of us once valued? Now we hear every debate moderator insist that this is not their job. When the mainstream news media tries to provide fact-checking afterwards, some conservatives howl that it is unfair to them. Fact-checking is unfair to them? How so? If it isn't obvious that this is another scary proposition, it should be. Facts have no political bent. A fact is neither liberal nor conservative. Facts are simply reflections of reality (not unlike atheism). Nothing that deserves to be called fact-checking is politically biased. Either we want fact-checking to be part of the political process, or we don't. And if we don't, we are asking to be deceived by those who want our votes. I'll agree that we need to make sure each candidate is subjected to fact-checking. Still, one candidate deciding to lie more frequently than the other is not evidence of bias in the fact-checking process.

I thought that Donald Trump's performance in the first debate against Joe Biden was atrocious and should have been a source of embarrassment for all Americans. By any reasonable standard I can think of, he lost and lost badly, humiliating himself in the process. But you know what? I thought he did much better in the last debate. That is different from saying I agreed with much of what he said (I didn't) or that he didn't continue to willfully disregard reality to an extent that we all should have found disturbing (he did). But as far as debate performances go, I thought it was much better than his first. Using the old standards of evaluating debate performances, I'd say he probably still lost but not by that much. He also managed to land some effective hits against Biden. And if we evaluate his performance using this newer idea of how effective he was in giving his base what they wanted to hear, I think it could probably be argued that he was fairly successful. He might have even appealed to some of the few undecided voters if they were watching.

I am very curious how candidates' debate performances will be evaluated in 2024 and 2028. Will we return to the old standards, still be with the ones that appear to be in use today, or adopt entirely different standards? I suppose that depends on us and whether we'd like our candidates to be rooted in reality.