A Debate Where the Voters Pick the Questions

Candidates in a Florida Senate race test out a new format that could be adopted for the presidential match-ups this fall.

Florida Senate hopefuls Alan Grayson, left, and David Jolly debated on Monday in a format where voters chose the questions. (John Raoux / AP)

When Alan Grayson faced off against David Jolly on Monday night in the first debate in the race for the Florida Senate seat being vacated by Marco Rubio, the match-up was unique in a couple of ways.

For one, Grayson, a Democrat, and Jolly, a Republican, haven’t even won their parties’ nominations yet. The primaries aren’t until August—the latest in the country for congressional seats—and there are a handful of other serious candidates in the race. But the more notable twist in Monday’s debate was the questions themselves: They were posted online in advance for all to see, having been determined, for the most part, by more than 400,000 votes from Internet users, including more than 84,000 in Florida.

The format is an experiment developed by the Open Debate Coalition, a bipartisan group that has pushed to make debates both more accessible and more democratic—with a small d—by giving viewers more of a say in what topics the candidates address. Its backers include the Progressive Change Institute on the left and Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform on the right, and it sprung out of a mutual frustration with presidential primary debates dominated by, in Norquist’s words, “a handful of multimillionaire television personalities” rather than average voters. The goal was to make bottom-up, user-generated questions the centerpiece of a debate, rather than as a small element of a traditional event in which the journalist moderators decide which Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube question they like the best.

“One thing we’re very resistant to is any form of tokenism,” Adam Green, the co-founder of the Progressive Change Institute. “We would rather have no bottom-up component than a fake bottom-up component that sullies the idea of regular people participating.”

The idea has also drawn the attention of Mike McCurry, a former White House press secretary who is now co-chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates. The commission is holding its first meeting this week to plan this fall’s general-election debates, and McCurry said in an interview that it was looking for ways to engage a broader section of the public this year. The Open Debate Coalition scheduled the Grayson-Jolly event on short notice so that the panelists could see how the format played in an actual debate setting. “We’ll be watching this experiment very carefully to see how it works,” McCurry said, noting that the open-debate format “will really test the proposition of whether we can engage the public in a direct way using social media and the Internet.”

This it how it worked: Anyone could submit questions to the website FloridaOpenDebate.com and vote on which ones should be asked of the candidates. The debate moderators, Cenk Uygur of the Young Turks Network and Benny Johnson of the Independent Journal Review, then had to choose only questions from among the 30 most popular as determined by voters in Florida. The voting closed at noon on Monday, so the candidates had plenty of time to prepare for the topics they knew were coming. The moderators did have the discretion to ask follow-ups or to press them on the details of their positions, all in the interest of making sure the candidates actually answered the questions.

What transpired was, by all accounts, a decent debate. For 75 minutes, Grayson and Jolly addressed several weighty policy disputes—money in politics, Wall Street reform, the minimum wage, climate change, the solvency of Social Security—and often in detail. There were no process or campaign questions, no bragging over polls, no obvious efforts by the moderators to get the candidates to attack each other. And no, not all of the most popular questions were about marijuana legalization. (It came in at Number 5.) Grayson and Jolly occasionally engaged each other directly, but not with the kind of canned soundbites you hear at presidential-primary slugfests. It wasn’t always riveting television—or in this case, web live-streaming—but it was substantive and allowed the audience of more than 80,000 viewers across online platforms to learn clearly where each contender stood.

“We couldn’t be more thrilled with how it worked out,” proclaimed Lilia Tamm, program director for the Open Debate Coalition. The candidates were pleased, too. “I thought the format was great. I think we should expand upon it,” Jolly told me. He said he was open to participating in a general-election debate with the same rules—if he makes it that far.

Grayson and Jolly, each currently members of the House, didn’t originally sign up for the experimental format. Grayson, a liberal firebrand who is under an ethics investigation, challenged Jolly to a debate earlier this year after a poll had shown them both leading their respective nomination races. Accepting was a relatively easy decision for Jolly, who is being out-raised by fellow Representative Ron DeSantis and could use the extra exposure that might solidify his front-runner status. And in the general election, Republicans would much rather face Grayson than the more centrist Democratic Representative Patrick Murphy, the favorite of party leaders. So Jolly had no problem helping Grayson to boost his own primary bid. (Murphy ultimately declined an invitation to participate in the debate.)

Although the debate drew no complaints from the participants, it did expose one major risk of “democratizing” the questions. Because the liberal PCCC was much more aggressive about promoting the debate to its followers than were any conservative groups or Jolly’s campaign, the questions that won the most votes slanted heavily to the left. Would the candidates support a constitutional amendment to get rid of money in politics? (Grayson yes, Jolly maybe) Did they accept that climate change was “the single-greatest threat” facing the United States? (Grayson yes, Jolly no) Do you support a $15 minimum wage? (Grayson yes, Jolly no) And so on.

Green said that in future debates, they hope to have a longer time for votes to come in so that a broader audience can weigh in. And while acknowledging the liberal tilt of the questions, Jolly said it simply presented a challenge to conservative groups—like, say, the NRA—to rally their memberships and make sure the questions are more balanced in the future. “We need conservatives to begin to warm to this type of format and to participate as well,” he said. At the same time, he added: “Whether the questions come from the left or the right, if you’re standing as a candidate for the United States Senate, you should be able to answer whatever questions come your way.”

A better ideological mix of questions would be one way to improve the format. But the push for more public involvement carries other risks. Does anyone really want to turn debate questions themselves into one more subset of campaigns? What happens if the most organized “questioners” are not serious-minded liberals or conservatives but pranksters who simply add a question mark to the end of the political debate version of Boaty McBoatface? Will making the questions publicly accessible in advance lead to more scripted debates heavy on canned talking points? And even in 2016, with broadband access still far from universal, just how representative is the Internet of the voting public at large?

McCurry said he and his fellow commissioners would be considering all these issues as they weigh whether an “open debate” is a format ripe for the more stodgy presidential fora in the fall. “The real question,” he told me, “is can you spread the involvement of the public broadly enough across the Internet that you get an—to use the Internet term—algorithmically correct answer about what do people really think are the important issues that need to be addressed?”

After Monday’s experiment in Florida, that question remains, well, open. Tamm said the coalition hoped to make “open debates” the model for House, Senate, and governor’s races throughout the country. To that end, it is allowing the League of Women Voters and any other potential debate sponsors to use the software code it created for voting in advance of the Grayson-Jolly debate. “We see this as a starting point,” Tamm said. The next step is to secure more engagement from Republicans so that future debates appear less like organizing campaigns for liberal causes. As for the ultimate goal of fully democratizing a presidential debate this fall? It might need a few more test runs, but after Monday’s initial effort in Florida, that day doesn’t appear too far off.