Hire FIFA as Political Debate Coach

How would you like to make a sales call premised on,  “I can tell you how to increase your audience by 100 times — not 100% — 100 times”? Do you think the prospective customer would meet with you if you dangled that bait?

The customer is the Democratic Party but it could as well be the Republicans. This year’s difference is it that only the Ds have multiple candidates running for President. That is the case about half the time but, if the incumbent President is term limited, both parties would have multiple candidates and boring debates. Each is a potential customer.

The parties need help because the debates are dreadful. FIFA, the worldwide governing body of soccer, knows how to stage competitions and they could make the debates a whole lot more interesting.  I know a guy at FIFA who might be able to make this happen.

Here’s the math. The two recent debates featured 10 identically dressed candidates (thanks to poll testing) lined up shoulder to shoulder. Thirty-five million people watched. FIFA just completed the quadrennial women’s World Cup soccer tournament that had 50 matches, most of which were competitive, and 3.5 billion people watched.

Shhhhh, don’t tell; Dems, do you know what else the World Cup had? Expensive tickets, massive television revenues, ads in the stadiums, VIP suites and lots of opportunities to make money.

But here’s the rub. The World Cup had 23 teams that didn’t win and one that did. Even though that is also the point of the nominating process, it is anathema to political consultants. Their dirty little secret is they don’t have to win to get paid; they just have to keep their candidate alive as long as possible so the contributions keep rolling in and their salaries keep getting paid. A political consultant can make a tidy living running campaigns for also-rans if he is good enough at fundraising. The last thing political consultants want is for their candidate to lose before the money runs out.

Keep that in mind next time you watch a dull debate with candidates shouting over each other and looking for gotchas.

Why choose the FIFA model and not a single elimination tournament like Wimbledon? It is a compromise with the consultants. In a tennis tournament, half the players lose in the first round. In the World Cup, the teams are divided into groups of four, in which each contestant plays the other three. Every team is guaranteed three head-to-head opportunities and, even then, only one third of the teams were dropped as the competition moved to a single elimination phase.

Happy with that, political consultants? Okay, maybe not, but would you be happy if a vastly larger pot of money went to your candidate’s campaign and thence into your pocket? Perhaps the candidates who don’t advance to the elimination round could be allowed to donate their unspent campaign dollars to whichever advancing candidate they prefer?

Here is a first cut at how the FIFA Debate Plan might work. Take the two-dozen Democratic hopefuls and divide them into four tiers based on likelihood of winning. Use any means you want—money raising, polling, endorsements, campaign staff quality, fluffiness of hair, looks good standing on hay bale – but voters will judge the criteria you choose.

Create groups of candidates including one from each tier. FIFA does the groups by a letter so here is a possible Group B. Joe Biden (# 1), Cory Booker (# 6), Bill DiBlasio (# 14) and Michael Bennett (# 20). Okay, I was being cute with the B thing. What is important is that you don’t end up with a group consisting of only the best candidates. Political parties might do well to try to serve up good candidates so intelligently seeding debate tournaments is a way to make themselves useful.

A four team round robin takes six matches to complete. If each one-on-one debate is 20 minutes long, you can complete an entire group in two hours. Winners of each debate would be determined based on online response to criteria set by the DNC. Again, make yourself useful by setting criteria that reflect the skills required in the job.

The debate format changes too. Each 20-minute segment is one question and each of the six debates in a group gets a different question. Neo-Nazis deface Martin Luther King Jr. statue, what do you do? Xi Jinping slaughters 100,000 Uighurs. What do you do? The moderator’s role is to draw the question out of a hat, keep order by shutting off microphones for rule violations and transfer airtime from one candidate to another for bigger offenses. Yellow cards and red cards for more significant offenses. As in soccer, a red card kicks you out of the game and your opponent plays on without you. Two yellow cards equals one red and they carry over from match to match.

Award three points for a win and one for a tie. Count the total points for each candidate after his or her three debates. Two or sometimes three of the four candidates in a group advance to the knockout stage. It depends on what it takes to end up with 16.

After all the group round robin debates are done, there are 16 candidates left and they go head-to-head in longer debates. The tournament bracket is also seeded — the winner of a group debates a runner up from another group.

Rulemaking is key. The party presumably wants to end up with the candidate who has the best chance of winning, but rulemaking can also be competitive. What if one party says, “we want our rules to lead to the best possible President, rather than the best possible candidate? Would the other party feel under pressure to do the same?

Years ago, in a different setting, I was involved in rulemaking, and the goal was to avoid griping and cheating in the process. Year after year we failed. Eventually the light bulb went on. We couldn’t stop griping and cheating but we could set the rulemaking process early enough so that nobody knew what to gripe about or how to cheat. It has worked great. Big Takeaway: use the FIFA format for the 2024 nominations, but set the rules now.

The key is to have real games with real outcomes to test real skills that you’d like to have in a President. Lose the 37-point, poll tested, popularity contest plans and test responses to real world crises.

Here’s another wrinkle. What if an occasional debate required the two contestants to solve a problem together? Okay, Mayor Pete and Bernie, come up with an answer to the cost of college that takes the budget deficit into account. Together. Right here on stage. Isn’t that a part of governing we should encourage?

American politics is doing nearly nothing well. It is boring. It is expensive. It delivers poor outcomes in terms of candidate quality and the parties themselves are useless.

In most enterprises, that is when you would try something else.

Here’s the deal DNC and RNC. I know a guy at FIFA. I bet I can get them to teach you how to run contests that are interesting enough to grab attention. They know how to make money. Interested?

Maybe I should only make this opportunity available to one of you, the highest bidder, for example. Operators are standing by.

2 Responses to “Hire FIFA as Political Debate Coach”

Tim Warburton, July 08, 2019 at 10:56 pm said:

Well, this certainly is not only tantalizing, but actually has some really good ideas. However, sadly, there is no moving ball in your suggestion. The major crowd events, football, soccer, baseball, golf, basketball, tennis, (even court tennis) all have little, or medium, round (in football’s case – prolate spheroid) balls.

Yes – people sort of watch poker, I suppose, horse racing gets some attention, and yet, chess, backgammon, and bridge, really don’t have much of a paying following.

The question is just how can we toss a ball into this little game? We all agree rules are important, but winning in politics just ain’t the same as getting a final goal, point, smash etc.


Haven Pell, July 08, 2019 at 11:24 pm said:

What a brilliant suggestion! The answer — how did I not think of this — is clearly dodgeball. It’s retro. It’s exciting. There are threats of bodily harm. Only the viewers in the studio are given balls to throw.


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