12 Moderator Mishaps that Derail a Presidential Debate
June 19, 2019
A Feeding Frenzy: The Second Night of the First Democratic Primary Debate
June 28, 2019

Sorry to those who wanted this first Democratic Presidential Primary to be a slug match.  It did not “get nasty” as predicted by some of the pundits.  I am happy to report that all the moderators maintained order relatively well (even wild card Rachel Maddow!)

As an expert on moderating panel discussions, here’s what I thought went well during the first Democratic Presidential primary:

  • Quick Start.  There weren’t any!  The candidates were told to be at their lecterns at the beginning of the debate.  So the first hour moderators (Lester Holt, Savannah Guthrie and Jose Diaz-Balart) gave a quick overview of the format: 60 seconds to answer a question and 30 seconds to respond to a follow-up questions.  Although, the moderators also added a quick “10 second response” to a specific follow-up question that a candidate may have had!
  • Two Prevention Strategies.  The moderators emphasized that not every person will be able to comment AND that they weren’t going to be shy about keeping the candidates to their time limits.  (Great prevention strategy.  Just wish they had kept to it…but that’s for later in this article!)
  • Intervene Early.  Guthrie started the questioning and while Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar stayed on time, Beto O’Rourke went over (the lectern turned red!).  Guthrie quickly modeled how she was going to intervene when a candidate went over time limits “Congressman…That’s time…”  She set the tone, and for the most part, the candidates kept to time with some minor nudging required.  There might have been an attempted filibuster once or twice, but a firm, but gentle nudging seemed to do the trick eventually!
  • Opening Remarks.  The first question went to Elizabeth Warren who happily responded.  Then a different question to Amy Klobuchar, a different question to Beto O’Rourke, then Booker…and I am thinking, “Wow!  This is a great way to do opening remarks without calling them opening remarks!”  Most of the questions seemed to zero in on each candidate’s key differentiating position AND they all seemed to be pretty confident coming out of the gate.  So I had to wonder….did they know the essence of the first question?  (I don’t think they knew the actual question in advance….but had a pretty good idea of where it was going to go.)
  • Covered New Ground. While the general topics have been covered before, the moderators gave them a new twist to provide more insight.  For example, “If you were president today, what would you do?” or “What would you do on day one in the White House?”  That gives a sense for the candidates’ priorities.
  • 10 Second Rebuttals.  If the candidate didn’t directly answer the question, (which happened often enough), the moderator (sometimes) would press the issue and give the candidate ten seconds to answer the question.  Bravo!
  • Three Changes of Pace.  Continuing to ask questions of each candidate makes it kinda boring, so I liked how the moderators threw in two polls and one lightning round:
    • One poll was about whether you would give up your private healthcare; another was about signing the nuclear deal.  This required candidates to put a stake in the ground and then allow several candidates (but not all – see above prevention strategy) to weigh in.
    • The other technique to add a little pizzazz to the debate was a “lightning round” where the moderator asks a question that requires a brief, one-sentence response from each of the candidates.   The question,  “What is the greatest geopolitical threat our country is currently facing?” was directed to the candidate to the far right, John Delaney.  He launched into an answer that was longer than a sentence, so the moderator had to interject and ask for the one greatest geopolitical threat.  By  correcting the first person to answer, Moderator Holt was able to ensure that all the remaining candidates would give a short answer!  (Love how that dynamic seems to work so well!)  Holt even said at the end, “This is the best part of a debate like this!”
  • Gatekeeping.  As the evening progressed, the candidates got more frisky – interrupting each other while vying for the chance to speak.  While I think Moderators Maddow and Todd did a reasonable job moving things along and not getting bogged down with one candidates comments.  (unfortunately, I think the loudest voice seemed to “win” – especially if they were center stage – see below).
  • Smooth Moderator Handoffs.  With so many cooks in the kitchen, I was a little nervous about the handoffs.  But they seemed to be well coordinated and balanced their roles effectively.  I was impressed that even Moderator Maddow seemed to enjoy her facilitation role (although her questions  seemed to be .  🙂
    Since I’m a data geek, here’s the moderator breakdown:  (Note: Chuck Todd’s time was boosted due to repeating a question 3 times and explaining a technical difficulty. Without that time his time would be around 4:30 – He’s taken a bit of heat for talking so much!)

Here’s what I thought was a little weird:

  • Warren Out of the Gate.  Speaking of the opening question, four candidates responded and then they went back to Warren.  WHAT?  If we are going to “give everyone a fair shake,” then we need to hear from ALL the candidates!  Then we got through all ten candidates and SHAZAMM!  Moderator Diaz-Balart asks Warren another question!  She inserts herself later on into the healthcare question and then becomes quiet for a while….  So if you look at the stats, she doesn’t have the most number of questions, nor the most amount of time talking….but it sure made me think that she was given preferential treatment as the party front-runner (who also happened to be standing at the center of the stage!)

  • The Beto & Booker Show.  Beto O’Rourke and Cory Booker had the most speaking time of them all.  They talked the most and interjected the most.  What I found to be most interesting is that the moderators didn’t seem to intervene when candidates wanted to rebut a comment.  It all started when O’Rourke was allowed a 10 second follow-up and then Bill de Blasio interjected his opinion from the far left.  Then John Delaney interjected from the far right. Whoa!  Beto is thinking, “You can do that?  Huh!  Alrighty then, I can do that too!”  And Booker wasn’t too far behind.
  • Line of Questioning.  Most moderators have a strategy for their questions, and while I thought most of the initial questions were fairly well-suited to each candidate (e.g. with Moderator Guthrie’s opening query to Warren concerning her legislative agenda), Guthrie’s first question to Cory Booker was about Warren’s position on breaking up big corporations.  Cornering a candidate right out of the box with a probing question about an opponent was questionable (pun intended!).
  • Mild Interventions.   The average response to a directed question was over a minute.  Ten second rebuttals were never ten seconds. The lectern would flash blue when the speaker went over time – which happened more often than not.  Moderator Maddow threatened at the onset, “We’ll be ruthless if necessary!”  Hmmm….The interventions that were soft spoken yet firm during the first half (“Your time is up”) became even more lenient in the second half (“Thank you…” even after Delaney started a semi-filibuster).  I don’t see this soft strategy being effective for future debates.  Heck – I’m not even sure it will work for tomorrow night!
  • Guys on the End Get Left Behind.  Sad but true, and it happens in virtually every Presidential debate I’ve ever seen.  The candidates on the end get left behind.  Just look at the stats above.  I have them in the same order as they were lined up.  It doesn’t matter whether you are talking about the number of questions or speaking time, it’s a bell curve.  Most speaking time is toward the center.  The most interruptions come from the fringes.  Poor John Delany had a breakout moment in the beginning, but then kept begging to interject.  On two occasions, the moderators said, “You’ll get your chance.”  So he had to interrupt more than anyone else just in order to be heard.
  • Gratuitous Audience Engagement.  NBC asked the public to submit their questions – and only ONE of those questions was asked during the second half by Lester Holt. Makes me wonder, “Why bother to submit a question in the future?”  One stinking question.  Although I do like the idea of audience engagement
  • Technical Malfunction.  We came back from break and then had to go back to commercial because the sound issues were still a big problem.  Big gaffe.  Mistakes happen. The moderators Maddow and Todd did an excellent job of handling an unexpected snafu. They bantered a bit to see if the situation could be remedied. Since it couldn’t, they wisely jumped to a commercial break. While the moderators handled this tense situation with aplomb, I’ll bet somebody got fired…

It wasn’t the most scintillating of debates, but I didn’t think it would be.  This is the first of twelve and more of an introduction than a debate.  My prediction for the next debate: The candidates are going to be MORE aggressive! [see that coverage here].


Related Articles:

How Moderators Can Manage Awkward Audience Comments

How to Create GREAT Questions for Your Panelists to Answer during Your Panel Discussion

Panel Discussion Tip #185 with Jeffrey Hayzlett: Finishing Panel Discussions


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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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