Republican Presidential Primary Debate: How Did the Moderators Do?

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Moderating a nationally televised debate is never easy.  Just ask Fox News anchors Bret Baier, Megyn Kelly and Chris Wallace, the moderators of Thursday’s first Republican Presidential Primary debate.

The Fox Team agonized for weeks over the format, the questions, the logistics and details…and they should.  Preparation is critical as all these little nuances set the tone for the debate and determine how well it will go.

This had to be a formidable task balancing the objectives and developing a meaningful format.

The Four Key Objectives (as far as I can determine from press clippings):

  1. Entertain the audience with surprise and drama to keep them watching
  2. Introduce the candidates to the audience
  3. Reinforce Fox News as the “must ­watch” channel for viewing for Presidential debates (according to Roger Ailes, Fox News chairman and chief executive).
  4. Feature Facebook data illustrating how the issues of the day are resonating with people on today’s largest platform for political conversation. (It’s also a nice way to mix various forms of media to keep the audience’s attention).

The Format:

Introduction.  Happily, the moderators decided to dispense with the typical introductory stultifying remarks by each of the candidates.  Instead, they quickly introduced the candidates, shared a simple statement of the rules (with a bit of humor) and then launched immediately into the first question posed to all candidates.  It was a classic “raise your hand” poll asking the candidates to “pledge your support to the eventual nominee of the Republican party and pledge to not run an independent campaign against that person.”

Donald Trump is the only one who raised his hand.  Not a surprise since Trump has stated this position before.  Moderator Baier dug a little deeper to make sure he (and the American public) understood the repercussions of his stance – when Rand Paul burst in to say, “This is what’s wrong. He buys and sells politicians of all stripes…” and so the provocative discussion begins!

This opening poll deliberately created the drama and tension television craves. It was a brilliant opening strategy that got everyone to sit up straighter and be a bit more attentive.  (My intuition makes me believe that this poll was vetted between Fox and the Republican National Chairman (RNC) beforehand.  In a post-interview on CNN, the RNC didn’t seem to be particularly phased by the question…nor the answer).

Round One.  After the initial poll, the moderators asked each of the candidates (all ten of them – which is way too many people) a specific question about that candidate’s ability to be president.  Each of the candidates had 60 seconds to respond.  Round one completed with no bloodshed and no rebuttals. Only Kasich got the buzzer.

To keep the debate on schedule, the Fox Team got creative.  Rather than using the usual gentle “ding” that signals that a candidate’s time has expired, they used the actual shot­clock buzzer used during Cleveland Cavaliers basketball games, which are played at the same arena.  Moderator Baier came up with the idea over dinner Tuesday night at a local bistro. “I was inspired,” he said with a smile, “by a beer.” (Fortunately, it only had to be used five times – and each candidate wrapped up their thoughts quickly).

Round two then tackled specific subjects.  A question was posed by the moderator to a specific candidate to answer.  Then, if allowed by a moderator, another candidate could have a 30-second rebuttal.

In both round one and two, the moderators’ questions were crucial.  They needed to be well-stated (introduce the candidates and inform the public), concise (time will never be your friend), and encourage discussion between the candidates (that’s where the “rebuttal” comes in).

According to the New York Times, “The moderators have spent weeks writing (and rewriting) about 100 potential questions, roughly half of which will actually be asked. Though they have eight to 10 broad topics they plan to raise, including immigration and the economy, the moderators found themselves working down to the wire to refine their questions and think through smart follow­-ups.”

They also integrated questions from Facebook users through video and in the questions the moderators posed.

Moderator Kelly said, “Everyday I spend a fair amount of time on my iPhone tightening them, redoing them, refining them, further researching them, bolstering them, eliminating them, and starting anew on some.”

According to Frank Bruni, an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times, it is precisely because their questions were so well researched “and so barbed, the television audience learned more about the candidates from what they were asked than from how they answered.”

So what happened?  In round two, Moderator Wallace took the lead asking candidates about illegal immigration asking 6 candidates about their opinions.  Still no “debate”.  I felt like I was watching a ping-pong match.  Ho-Hum.

Moderator Kelly took on the topic of terror and national security posing a question to Christie.  When Christie finished, Paul asked to respond – and then the fireworks started to fly from opposite ends of the rostrum!  Finally, it gets a little more interesting!  Kelly allows the sparks to fly between the two for a minute and then asks Christie to “make your point.”  She let’s the cross-talk go on for another minute or so, again encouraging Christie to continue.  “Go ahead, Governor.”  After Christie has another few minutes to pontificate, she then stops the conversation by saying, “Alright, we’ve gottta cut it off there.”

While interesting to watch the sparks fly, Kelly didn’t follow the FOX rules.  Rand should have had 30 seconds of uninterrupted rebuttal to Christie’s comments.  Instead, Christie got even more airtime!

In round two, the moderators explored a total of fourteen topics with a total of 31 questions directed to a specific candidate.  Of those, only seven were redirected to another candidate for rebuttal.  Paul interjected himself into the questioning a total of three times whereas Cruz asked to jump in and was declined due to an upcoming commercial break!

If the goal was to introduce the American public to ALL the top ten candidates, then the format as stated would have worked if the questions were dispersed equally to all the candidates and if the rebuttals were dispersed as best as possible so each candidate had roughly the same amount of airtime.  Unfortunately, they were not.

Here are two interesting graphs:

I would have expected the same number of questions to be asked of each candidate, but that’s not how it worked out.  Bush had eight questions directed to him whereas Christie had only four.  That’s not particularly balanced.

When it comes to airtime, the closer a candidate was to center stage, the more air-time he had. Since the placement of the candidates was based on their ranking in the FOX poll, it simply reinforced the “pecking order” in the American mind and didn’t give us any more new information.

Time Spoken During the Debate. Darker bars indicate responses that were longer than 60 seconds

Just because the top ten made it to the debate, doesn’t mean they had to stand in the same order.  It’s similar to a horse having the inside lane.  It gives the horse and jockey an unfair advantage.  I this case, I think I would have had the candidates draw lots or go alphabetically.

Round three started after the second commercial break where Moderator Wallace cautioned the audience “We’re also going to change it up every once in a while….where we ask (you are not going to like it) only a couple of candidates questions on those subjects.”  Whew!  This is the wild card where the moderators could have balanced the questions and airtime.  He asked two questions here of Kasich and Carson.  Then, at the end, just before round four/final thoughts, Kelly asked a Facebook question to three candidates (Cruz, Kasich, Walker) and then added a specific twist on it for the last two candidates (Rubio and Carson).  This makes no sense to me as Kasich and Rubio didn’t need more airtime.  (Paul and Christie might have been better choices.)

Round four asked the candidates to make a 30-second closing statement which were obviously prepared by each candidate.

Throughout the debate, there were surprisingly few interventions – where the moderators choose to interject a comment theoretically to bring the group back on track.   It means everyone was on their best behavior.  There were only two “sparky” episodes including the riff off of Trump talking about campaign contributions and the pledge to the Republican party (see above).

  • The moderators’ styles seemed quite complementary to each other.  Baier played traffic cop, queuing up the candidates and telling them to move on, Kelly challenged the candidates and their statements, and Wallace was the facilitator of the conversation.
  • Of the 24 interventions, seven were to “queue” the candidates, six were to challenge a statement, five were to clarify and refocus the question, five were to encourage the candidates to move on, five candidates got “buzzed” and one candidate actually challenged the moderator!
  • Baier led the pack with intervening a dozen times, Kelly had seven and Wallace had five.
  • From the candidate’s perspective, eight were involved in some kind of intervention with Trump leading the pack with eight interventions; Christie, Cruz, Paul, Walker tying for three interventions; Kasich had two, and Carson and Rubio had only one.

All in all, it was a credible introduction of the panelists to the American public, done with a bit of drama – all while keeping Fox and Facebook as credible sources for Presidential debates. The moderators did a great job asking tough questions, keeping the flow moving and intervening when necessary.

On a scale of 1-10 with one being the lowest and 10 being the absolute best, I give it an eight due to the strength of the questions and the format.  I still don’t think this was much of a “debate,” since there were so few rebuttals, but  we’ll see how things go in the future.

For more resources on effective panel moderation, make sure to check out this knowledge vault which is chock-full of customizable checklists, worksheets, templates, agendas, sample emails, video interviews and webinars with industry icons and professional moderators.

Related Articles:

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Republican Primary Presidential Debate Moderation was Snarky and Awkward

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.

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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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