The 2016 primaries are underway, and a bloated field of Republican candidates lined up to take part in the first media heavy debate of the season in Cleveland, Ohio. With so many contenders (seventeen in total), an opportunity to develop their individual positions and craft their image is nothing to scoff at. Many agree that these debates have an impact, however what that impact is has been cause for disagreement. Still, 23.9 million viewers tuned in on August 6th, making it the highest rated primary debate in history, likely due in part to the participation of Donald Trump, the source of a litany of controversial comments. Unfortunately, those viewers watched a terrible representation of a “debate”.

23.9 million viewers tuned in on August 6th, making it the highest rated primary debate in history

This is not anomaly. In fact, the political presidential debates we have become accustomed to watching are terrible examples of what debates should be (some more than others). To be clear, the fact that these are terrible representations of debate does not mean that these debates serve no value, because they do. In fact they can offer viewers/voters an opportunity to see candidates respond to important questions in a less contrived manner and help voters get a better understanding of the candidate’s personality and capabilities under pressure.

Still, if this is what debates look like around your dinner table, with your best friend, or in one of your classes, you probably didn’t get as much out of them as the seventeen presidential candidates did. To be fair, they do contain aspects of what a good debate should look like. For example, they had moderators, said moderators were presenting questions, and there were participants that had varying positions on similar issues.

These are all good things for a debate. Unfortunately, there were plenty of not-so-good-for-debate things present. Here are some things to look for so that you can make better decisions about the debates, both past and present:


Clash is a good thing. However, many people don’t recognize the difference between good clash and bad clash.

With a good clash, the arguments being presented actually speak to each other. Bad clash often occurs when individuals focus their exchange on something that was said that mildly or not at all speaks to the original question or talking point. Or, often, it’s just an outright attack on the person (ad hominem attack).

Exhibit A

Exhibit A



Good Clash

Exhibit B


There’s a large amount of strategy at play in these debates. Part of that strategy includes avoiding outright answering a question. What we typically see is a reassuring statement followed by some sort of “evidence” or no evidence at all, and then a rounded conclusion that implies the answer. Often times, there are extra of each stuffed in there. 


Ted Cruz and Megyn Kelly at the primary debates, an artist’s rendering


Speaking of evidence, the candidates can get very crafty with what their evidence actually proves. They like to use easy to digest “evidence” to support their position or answer. A few things to take into consideration when looking at evidence:

Studies and the numbers that come from them: Often the studies that these numbers get pulled from ask a specific question(s) they want to answer with their data AND explain what their shortcomings are. Those two little factors tend not to be included in the conversation, so we typically get numbers or data without context. It’s kinda like a camp counselor telling a parent “we took the kids out in the middle of a tornado warning” without telling them the context: Because there was a fire alarm going off inside the building.

Stories (narratives) are great way to shine a light on a person’s actual experience. But, one story is not a representation of the entire U.S. population. Unfortunately, candidates often use these stories to support their statement or position. The problem is that, although that story matters, so does everyone’s story, and guess what? Everyone’s story is different, and each one will likely result in a different answer.

Where did it come from? Now I’m not saying we should discount evidence simply because of where it comes from—you can and should note it. However, just because it came from somewhere we consider to be biased does not necessarily mean it is factually incorrect.

These are some of the most prominent aspects of debates that tend to be done badly or are simply missing. But imagine listening to a debate that consistently had good clash, explicit responses, and well-used/reliable evidence. That would be a debate worth watching.