Second 2016 Presidential Debate: Who Moderates the Moderator?
October 10, 2016
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October 27, 2016

It was the last of the 2016 Presidential debates, and I was stuck in a car driving from a speaking engagement toward home.  Good news is that I was able to listen over the radio. Weird, not being able to see the eye rolls and other non-verbals that are typically shown over a split screen.

Nevertheless, I was impressed with how the moderator, Chris Wallace, anchor of “Fox News Sunday,” had moderated the debate. Sure, there were a few times I wish he had stuck to his guns and kept the conversation moving, but for the most part, I thought he did a darn fine job moderating two contentious candidates.

While the format was the exact same as the first debate, the moderation was completely different – and so the conversation was much more substantive.  I gotta believe that he looked at the previous two debates and analyzed the strengths and weaknesses of each (FYI -I’ve point them out here and here) and recognized how he wanted to run this debate.

According to Fox News, Wallace wanted “his role to [be to] let the candidates take center stage.”  He said, “If people say, ‘it was a great debate and I don’t remember you being there,’ I will have done my job.”  Wallace also said on Fox News Sunday, “If I think there’s a need for me to intervene, then I will, but I would prefer not to,” “And basically you’re there as a timekeeper, but you’re not a participant. You’re there just to make sure that they engage in the most interesting and fairest way possible. And I take it very seriously. It’s not a TV show that we’re doing, this is part of civics, the Constitution in action, if you will, because we’re helping millions of people decide who we’re going to elect the next President.”

Sorry, Chris.  It was a great debate because you provided structure and process to the program…and didn’t hesitate to intervene firmly (for the most part).

The debate started off as usual with the moderator providing the ground rules: “Six roughly 15­ minute segments with two ­minute answers to the first question, then open discussion for the rest of each segment. Both campaigns have agreed to those rules. For the record, I decided the topics and the questions for each topic. None of those questions have been shared with the commission or the two candidates. The audience here in the hall has promised to remain silent. No cheers, boos, or other interruptions so we and you can focus on what the candidates have to say.”

Same rules as before, but what was different is that he followed the rules.  The “open discussion” wasn’t a free-for-all, but an opportunity for the moderator to ask specific follow-up questions.  It was an excellent ping-pong match with Wallace in tight control.  When a candidate started drifting, he would bring them back on point by restating the question and getting clearer answers.  He didn’t let them go waaaayyyy past their time limits (although, every once in a while, he backed down and let a candidate rebut a comment), and discouraged the sniping that has permeated the other debates.  Even the audience was on a tight leash and behaved rather appropriately!

I have to believe there were some prevention strategies that he used, giving fair warning ahead of time to each candidate and the audience that he was going to be quite forceful about following the process.  I still wish he would have had the option to cut off the microphone for a long-winded answer.  But I guess that’s kind of rude to do to a future President of the United States!

I, for one, and thankful you were there, Mr. Wallace.  It was actually the most memorable part of the debate!


For quick tips and techniques from industry professionals to help you moderate a lively and informative panel discussion at your next meeting, conference or convention, visit the Powerful Panels YouTube playlist, “Powerful Panel Discussion Tips.”

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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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