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Organize a Candidate Debate: 2 of 3
February 6, 2015

The National Democratic Institute, a nonprofit, nongovernmental Washington-based think tank, offers the following advice about organizing a debate between competing candidates. (This has been edited for length and clarity.)

Man and woman behind podiums shaking hands (AP Images)
Senator Mary Landrieu and Representative Bill Cassidy, both of Louisiana, greet each other before the start of their final debate for the 2014 Senate runoff election.

The reputation of the group that plans a debate rests on the group’s ability to establish and maintain the public’s view of it as a fair and transparent organization. Perceptions of partisanship or of holding a poorly run debate can undermine the group’s ability to convince candidates to take part in future debates.

Focus on the Goal

The purpose of a debate is to help voters make informed choices among candidates for elected office. Debate planners should try avoid being perceived as promoting particular media or business interests.

Keep It Simple

 A debate requires managing many organizational, production, media and political issues. Keep plans basic — especially for a first-time debate — so less can go wrong. A simplified approach can help minimize last-minute complications that take time away from achieving the mission of informing voters. More advanced organizational and production methods can be added for subsequent debates.

No Such Thing as a Bad Debate

 A less than perfect debate is better than no debate at all. Even a flawed debate informs voters to some extent. Just having a debate is a first step toward establishing  the candidate debate as an expected and integral part of elections.

No Candidates, No Debate

 Planners should be flexible when negotiating issues that could make candidates pull out of the proposed debate. While neutrality and fairness must not be sacrificed, it is worth making concessions to candidates to prevent debate negotiations from collapsing. Even if not all candidates decide to participate, holding the debate can focus campaigns on public policy issues and reduce political tensions.

 As public expectations and media support for debates grows, so will the certainty that debates will take place. Candidates become more compelled to participate.

Organizing a debate can be demanding. Among the many logistical details, these are some that must be considered:

  • Select an appropriate debate format.

  • Develop a timeline, budget and staffing plan for the debate.

  • Select a production partner.

  • Develop a media strategy to promote the debate.

  • Present the debate plan to candidates and to other key players.

  • Choose a debate venue.

  • Ensure public safety. Coordinate with police and other security officials.

  • Set guidelines for tickets and the debate audience.

  • Decide who and how many people will be invited.

  • Recruit and manage debate volunteers.

  • Comply with local and electoral regulations by consulting with a legal adviser.

  • Hold and broadcast the debate.

  • Evaluate the debate to improve in the future.

More on debates is available in Organizing and Producing Candidate Debates on the National Democratic Institute website.