Democratic Primary Debate: How Did the Debate Moderators Do?

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Who schedules a presidential primary debate on a SATURDAY night?  I guess if you don’t want anyone to tune in, it’s a good strategy.

Since my husband and I had nothing better to do – and since we haven’t been able to watch a Democratic Primary debate yet, we decided to view this rather lackluster performance among the three (what? only three?) candidates:

The two moderators, Martha Raddatz and David Muir did a reasonable job keeping order.  I just wished they had followed their own rules that were agreed upon by all:

“Candidates can take up to a minute-and-a-half to respond directly to a question. For a rebuttal, for a follow-up, 45 seconds will be allowed. There are green, yellow, and red lights that each candidate will see to signal when time is running out and when they’re supposed to be finished with their answers.”

The panel moderators lost control with the first question directed to Sanders about the data breech between a staffer and the Clinton campaign.  Sanders gave a description of the events and then publicly apologized to Secretary Clinton.  Which enabled Clinton to give a rebuttal.  When Clinton was done, O’Malley chimed in with a statement of his own to which Sanders chimed in to agree with O’Malley!

So…what precisely constitutes the ability to give a rebuttal and when can one speak…or not?

This issue escalated during the fifth question of the night. The question about gun control was directed to Clinton and then to Sanders with O’Malley trying to butt in twice before the moderators let him speak!  To which, Sanders said, “First of all, let’s have some ground rules here, commentators.”  Ironically, later in the debate, Sanders wanted to comment and Raddatz chided him, stating, “You’re the one who told us we have to follow the rules and break it off.”

Rest assured, the logic behind who could comment and when they would be allowed to comment (or not) continued to be a mystery throughout the debate.  While the candidates wanted to chime in with an opinion, I didn’t see a whole lot of opportunities to truly “rebut” a response.  Although mid-way through, Secretary Clinton actually said, “Under the rules, I have been — I have been invoked, David, so let me respond very quickly.”

There were 29 distinct questions posed to the candidates; 16 of which had NO rebuttal. Four questions were asked equally to all three candidates and four questions had a single rebuttal.  That left just a few (five to be exact) with a spirited discourse (gun control, intelligence on the ground, ISIS vs. Assad, and Libya).  This wasn’t a “debate” per se; it was more like an interview.

As a professional panel moderator, I like to see a balanced discussion where the conversation is not dominated by one particular candidate.  In this case, I pity poor Governor O’Malley who tried as best as he could to come out of the gate swinging with “rebuttals,” especially since the first seven questions went to directly to Clinton and Sanders.  Just take a look some simple statistics:


I can’t really blame him for edging his way into the conversation as the moderators weren’t going to give him equal airtime.

Now, I couldn’t see the traffic signals, but I sense that the moderators were not all that great about cutting off the continued conversation of a candidate.  I still don’t know why the producers don’t just shut off the microphone once a candidate gets way past red…but that may be why I am not a television news producer!

A key to any debate is to ask probing questions and meaningful follow up questions.  These moderators did a reasonable job except for two instances.

  • They missed out on asking about key issues such as climate change, which is rather glaring since the U.S. just signed a historic agreement in Paris last week.
  • They also asked a softball question at the end:  “Is it time to change the role of a president’s spouse?”  What the heck is that all about?

Overall, debate moderators should enforce and follow the rules that they establish from the start. They ensure that the panel discussion is a robust conversation, not an interview, and definitely not dominated by one panelist.  Finally, moderators should ask strong, provocative questions that cover key issues the audience cares about. Since these are not easy tasks,  moderators should visit our knowledge vault of panel resources to ensure they have covered all of their bases before stepping foot on the big stage.

Related Articles:

Republican Primary Presidential Debate Moderation was Snarky and Awkward

Republican Presidential Primary Debate: How Did the Moderators Do?

Why The Republican Presidential Primary Wasn’t a Debate

Kristin Arnold, professional panel moderator and high stakes meeting facilitator, shares her best practices for interactive, interesting, and engaging panel presentations. For more resources like this, or to have Kristin moderate your next panel visit the Powerful Panels official website.

Note: Statistics derived from NBC transcript.




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Kristin ArnoldKristin Arnold
KRISTIN ARNOLD, MBA, CSP, CPF|Master has been facilitating meaningful conversations between executives and managers to make better decisions and achieve extraordinary results for 25+ years. She's a leading authority on moderating panel discussions and passionate about finding the perfect olive to complement a vodka martini.
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