The one thing you will never see candidates do in a presidential debate

No free range.
No free range.
Image: AP Photo/Mary Altaffer
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With a candidate as unpredictable as Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, it’s hard to predict what will happen in tonight’s (Sept. 26) debate at Hofstra University in Long Island. But there is one thing the expected audience of up to 100 million viewers is practically guaranteed not to see. Trump and Hillary Clinton won’t be debating directly with each other.

The structure of the debate, as determined by the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), is such that both candidates answer the moderator’s questions separately. They also respond to their opponent’s answers via the moderator, rather than replying to one another’s points directly.

This has been the case for most presidential and primary debates, with one exception. As Jill Lepore reports in The New Yorker, a 1992 primary debate between Democratic candidates Bill Clinton and Jerry Brown was set up as a real head-to-head match, wherein the two were introduced by the host and proceeded to talk to directly each other for 45 minutes.

Other attempts at getting more confrontational debates on air have failed to change the debate format, including a petition for the 2016 election cycle on the online platform The petition, signed by 63,000 people, was addressed to the CPD as well as to Trump and Clinton. Arguing that the current debate structure encourages candidates to stick to superficial sound bites, the petitioners suggested it be replaced with an Oxford-style debate. This would involve each participant responding for seven minutes to a specific prompt—”Give undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship” or “the United States intervenes abroad too often.” Then they would be free to follow up by rebutting each other’s points, rather than replying to the moderator’s questions. This, the petition says, would “force the candidates to respond to intense questions, marshal relevant facts, and expose weaknesses in their opponents’ arguments.”

But for now, the debates are structured according to the same old format. So while the media often uses boxing metaphors to talk about candidates facing off, tonight, Trump and Clinton won’t really be fighting mano a mano—they’ll be fighting next to each other.