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Fix America’s Presidential Debates!

Americans deserve better than the current presidential debate format.

Today’s debates have been reduced to a string of “gotcha” questions for candidates, which result in personal attacks, uninformative soundbites, rehearsed remarks and scripted rebuttals. They tell voters almost nothing that can’t be gathered from campaign ads. There is no time for depth, no payoff for nuance, no serious discussion of policy.

That’s why it isn’t surprising that America is tuning out. The percentage of the voting-age population watching has dropped from 58% during the first Presidential debate in 1960 to 25% in 2012 -- with younger voters in particular choosing not to watch. Even so, more than 60 million Americans in 2012 watched the debates, giving them substantial influence.

With so much at stake, it’s imperative that the Presidential Candidates and the Commission on Presidential Debates fix our upcoming presidential debates.

For the 2016 general election, the candidates and the nonprofit that oversees the format, the Commission on Presidential Debates, ought to adopt Oxford-style debate, a proven format that would better demonstrate the candidates’ platforms, ideas, and interactions.

Here’s how it would work:  Sharply framed resolutions — for instance, “give undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship” or “the United States intervenes abroad too often” — are devised for one side to support and the other to oppose.

The Democrat and Republican each start with an opening statement that they deliver without interruption. Then the contenders address and rebut the best arguments their opponent has made. The moderator’s role is simple, but vital: to ensure that the candidates actually debate each other—that they respect the process, respond to points made, refute or concede as necessary, and honor time limits. The debate ends with two-minute closing arguments, a final opportunity to sway the audience.

In 2016, a debate like this would be a gamechanger.

Unable to rely solely on personal attacks and personality, an Oxford-style debate would force the candidates to respond to intense questions, marshal relevant facts, and expose weaknesses in their opponents’ arguments.  Memorized talking points could not be disguised as answers. Anyone running for president should  be able to answer tough questions with the confidence that comes from deep conviction and a lifetime spent developing his or her own political philosophy.

Best of all: we know it works.

Since 2006, Intelligence Squared U.S. has mounted some 120 debates, often to sold-out theaters in New York, Boston and Chicago. We have explored nearly every topic discussed on the presidential campaign trail, including income inequality, business regulation, immigration, guns, taxes and health care. We’ve tackled questions regarding Russia, China, the Middle East and America’s role in the world. On average, 46% of attendees change their minds during our debates.

By showing voters who the candidates are, how they think, and what they can teach us about difficult policy choices, a series of these debates will foster the informed electorate essential for a thriving democracy.

Sign our petition to send a message to the Presidential candidates and the Commission on Presidential Debates. America’s voters expect REAL debates this election season.

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