clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Why let undecided voters dominate the presidential debate?

President Barack Obama answers a question from an audience member during a town hall–style debate at Hofstra University October 16, 2012, in Hempstead, New York.
President Barack Obama answers a question from an audience member during a town hall–style debate at Hofstra University October 16, 2012, in Hempstead, New York.
Pool/Getty Images

The second presidential debate, to be held this Sunday evening, will be conducted in a town hall format. Half the questions will be generated by the moderators, Anderson Cooper and Martha Raddatz. The other half will come from an audience of undecided voters, selected by the Gallup organization.

This is wrong. It is wrong because it places disproportionate political power in the hands of people who are least likely to be politically informed.

We have a notion in our political discourse that the ideal citizen is one who is well informed about the issues of the day, approaches the candidates without any real preconceptions, and then makes a rational, informed decision about which candidate would best advance her interests and the nation's. We also know from a great deal of public opinion and election research that this notion describes almost zero people.

Most voters are partisans, to one extent or another. They grow up with loyalty to one of the major parties, even if they never formally register as party members, and they perceive new information in ways that are generally favorable to their chosen party. Their knowledge of the political world may not be perfect, but it's far better than that of independent voters.

Actual independents just don't follow politics very closely at all, for the most part. If they're undecided between the presidential candidates, it's in large part because they've tuned out and stopped receiving new information about them. And that's fine. Undecided voters lead busy lives, like the rest of us, and unless they have reason to believe that their own individual vote will be pivotal (which is pretty unlikely), there's little reason for them to be following the campaign that closely until right before the election. But there's no reason for this indecision to give them an outsize voice in picking presidents.

A town hall debate can be an enjoyable and revealing event. It gives us a rare chance to see candidates interacting directly with potential voters, including those who might not vote for them. While speaking one on one with citizens isn't necessarily a major part of a president's job, seeing how the candidates think on their feet and demonstrate empathy (or don't) can be a useful exercise.

So when the debate hosts decide that the only people with the proper standing to contribute to this event are those who haven't paid attention to the presidential race so far, that those who are attentive to politics and have made up their mind are hereby disqualified from further participation, they're making a value judgment of one over the other. They're saying undecideds matter more.

Is there another way to run town hall debates? Well, loyal partisans could be allowed to participate. A debate in which Clinton answers questions from Republican voters while Trump fields questions from Democratic voters would be pretty entertaining and possibly quite valuable. It would be a chance for the talking points that flourish in partisan echo chambers to actually be directed against the candidate in question. Maybe the questioner ends up looking foolish, or maybe the candidate does, but it could be a healthy public airing of ideas that could use a bit of sunlight.

Another option is to just not have town hall–format debates. Yes, they've given us some great memories. But there's nothing wrong with leaving the job of interviewing presidential candidates to professional journalists.

But if we are going to have regular voters playing this role, there's no reason to privilege the undecided. The first debate seemed to produce a several-point bounce for Hillary Clinton, turning a very close race into one that looks pretty comfortable for her. The second debate might have no real effect, or it could be the one that cements Clinton's victory, or it could be the one that makes the race competitive again. Should one subset of voters get to have that kind of influence over the election by virtue of the fact that they haven't thought about the election as much as everyone else?