Are crowded presidential debates effective?

Are crowded presidential debates effective? Are crowded presidential debates effective?

June 24, 20193 min read

Twenty candidates vying for the Democratic presidential nomination will debate one another in groups of ten over two nights: June 26 and 27.

Chris Lundberg, an associate professor of rhetoric in the Department of Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is available to discuss the upcoming debates. Lundberg is an expert on rhetoric, political debate, public speaking and the rhetorical psychology of public life. Lundberg also is an author, business owner and debate coach.

If you’d like to speak with Lundberg,

call 919-445-8555 or email

Lundberg shared his thoughts on debate strategy, effective moderating and what viewers should watch for:

Question: Are Debates with this many participants effective?

Answer: There is always a question of whether debates are effective. It is difficult to rise above the crowd in any debate, especially so in a debate where time is so limited. For this week’s debates, after you divide the number of participants by the amount of time for the debate, subtract time for intros, questions and follow ups, then really any given candidate will only get a few chances to speak. Even fewer will have the chance to make a real impression.

Q: How can candidates maximize their time in this format?


A: First, they need to debate for the real audience, which – like it or not – is the media. Audiences will gather impressions about the debate from the news coverage about it. A surprisingly low number of people will watch the entire debate, and fewer will pay the kind of attention that motivates them to change their minds. Also, we know that those who do pay attention the whole time are people who are likely to be decided in advance.

Second, candidates need to stay disciplined about their message. That means shoehorning their message into as many answers as possible, or responding to questions and attacks from the perspective of their message. It can feel repetitive, but it increases chances that news media will cover it. It is not a bad outcome for a journalist to cover that a candidate repeated a key message. However, one can go too far—think Marco Rubio.

Third, well-coached debates are about engineered “moments.” Just repeating a message is good, but plotting out what is likely to happen in a debate – for example, opportunities for zingers – is important.

Q: How should moderators handle debates with this many participants?

A: The moderator in the debate will generally be working to make the debate watchable and fair. Sometimes these two goals are in tension, especially when the news cycle is focused on a question about singular candidates.

Q: How should viewers approach watching the debates?


A: Viewers should pay attention to whom the moderator follows up with—there is

something to follow up on after an answer, so the moderator is making strategic choices about when to engage.

I also recommend watching how different candidates attack. If the participants are coached well, they will make calculated choices about how they engage. The dynamics behind this are interesting. Candidates who feel that they are up relative to the field will want a debate that is light in conflict. They will want to stay on their message and avoid getting into the mud with anyone else. However, candidates who feel like they are down relative to the rest of the field will want to force gaffes or attacks. If the up candidates respond, it gives oxygen to others who are down. The down candidates also have to be careful to attack in a way to solicit responses, but not present as so aggressive that they become unlikable.

The audience also should pay attention to themes, phrases and arguments that the candidates are repeating—this will give a good sense of the message candidates are trying to drive. Equally informative is paying attention to what are the candidates not addressing.

If you’d like to speak with Lundberg,

call 919-445-8555 or email

Connect with:
  • Christian Lundberg, Ph.D.
    Christian Lundberg, Ph.D. Associate Professor, Department of Communication, and Co-Director of the University Program in Cultural Studies, College of Arts and Sciences

    Lundberg's research focuses on public discourse, rhetorical theory, and on debate and public speaking as critical democratic forms.

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