Republican Primary Presidential Debate Moderation was Snarky and Awkward

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Last night’s Republican Primary Presidential debate was snarky, awkward and just plain weird.

The third Republican debate broadcast by CNBC started with the moderator Carl Quintanilla welcoming the audience by reading his notes.  Can’t you look into the camera and read from a teleprompter?  Weird.

The opening question was, “This series of debates is essentially a job interview with the American people.  And in any job interview, you know this: You get asked, ‘What’s your biggest weakness?’ So in 30 seconds, without telling us that you try too hard or that you’re a perfectionist, what is your biggest weakness and what are you doing to address it?”  Contestant #1 (ooops!  I meant candidate) didn’t even bother to answer the question.  Governor Kasich took his entire 30 seconds to ramble off his prepared opening comments.  And the moderator went on to the next contestant.  What?  Were you not even listening?  Good news is that the majority of them answered the question while weaving in their key messages – but some still didn’t.

This little faux pas sent the signal that the moderators were not going to follow their own rules – and that the candidates could push the rules hard.  Which they did!

So here are the “rules” of the debate:  “Candidates get 30 seconds to answer an opening question, 60 seconds to answer a formal question, 30 seconds for follow-ups and rebuttals, all at the discretion of the moderators.”

Timing was an abstraction, with most of the candidates understandably going over their time limits.  That’s what candidates will do during a debate. Moderators should prepare for the inevitable incursions into the precious televised airtime.  While the last debate used the arena’s shot clock!  For this debate, the moderators ended up pleading with the panelists, giving gentle reminders of the time. For goodness sakes, exercise some control – especially over Governor Kasich who went over time each and every time he spoke.  Next came Mrs. Fiorina and then Governor Huckabee. Doctor Carson never went over time, but then again, he probably had the least amount of airtime of all of the candidates!

Follow your own stated process  If you break the debate into fifths, with each part being separated by the commercial break, it consisted of nine separate questions, with six of those questions having a follow up question posed by the moderator.  One question had one follow up question and then SIX rebuttals – just because someone wanted to say something!  At the end of the first fifth, Moderator Quick asked Governor Christie a question, Governor Huckabee rebutted.  Moderator Quintanilla was going to ask Governor Cruz a question, but Governor Huckabee pleaded by saying, “This is the only time I’ve had a chance. Let me finish.” Moderator Quintanilla surprisingly said, “Okay, all right” only to have Governor Huckabee start, with Governor Christie interrupting, Senator Cruz jumping into the fray with Governor Huckabee given another 30 seconds to finish his rebuttal.

Although the second fifth was a little bit more orderly (someone must have reinforced the rules), it got so confusing by the third fifth of the debate, Senator Paul asked, “What are the rules on who gets to follow up?  How do we decide on who gets to follow up?  I’ve seen plenty of other people follow up!”  To which Moderator Quick answered, “It’s at the moderator’s discretion.”

Sure, I get that loophole, but the moderators need to show some consistency.  In the first fifth, Moderator Quick assured the candidates that “We’ll get to everyone.”  I’m not so sure about that one.  While the questions appeared to be evenly spread out, the ability to rebut was not.


Who got to “rebut” was absurd.  There was no logic or consistency.  If I had to figure  it out (which is hard to do while watching in the comfort of my living room), I would say it was:

  1. The moderator wanted to ask a follow up question
  2. If a specific candidate was mentioned in the speaker’s initial answer
  3. Loudest voice or most insistent candidate
  4. That moderator’s preference of candidate or
  5. Gosh, we haven’t heard from the candidate in a while, so let’s give the dog a bone

In the third fifth, Moderator Quintanilla recognizes he’s completely lost control when Senator Cruz butts in to Senator Paul’s rebuttal.  He says, “Oh, no, no, no…” and then let Cruz continue! (But if you look at the numbers, Cruz should have gotten more airtime, so here’s the proverbial bone?).

It gets even weirder.  Toward the end of the debate, Carly Fiorina wanted to make a comment and Moderator Harwood said, “Mrs. Fiorina, we’re right at the end of our time.”  She counters, saying “I understand,” and then he unexplicably says, “All right. Go ahead.”  Now, that’s what I called “waffling!”

And the questions!  OHMIGOSH!  Where did they come up with these antagonizing and incendiary questions?  The moderators in the first two debates carefully curated thoughtful questions that gave the audience more insight into the candidates and their positions.  Last night, the questions were snarky and created to incite division between the candidates.

For example, the VERY FIRST question directed at Donald Trump was “You’ve done very well in this campaign so far by promising to build a wall and make another country pay for it….is this a comic book version of a presidential campaign?”  Trump fired off his response saying, “No, not a comic book, and it’s not a very nicely asked question the way you say that.”  I agree.  You can ask a pointed question without being derogatory.  Senator Cruz likened the debate to “a cage match!”

Not only did the moderators ask leading questions, but they continually interrupted them before the end of their first sentence!  I counted at least seven times where the moderator interrupted the candidate.  At one point, Governor Christie said, “John, do you want me to answer or do you want to answer?…Because I’ve got to tell you the truth, even in New Jersey what you’re doing is called rude.”

Even between the moderators, I would have expected better coordination.  One moderator would take the lead, and when that line of questioning was finishing, the next moderator would step in to shut it down and move to the next question.  However,  there were several times where the moderators interrupted each other, trying to get their next question in, when the lead moderator wanted to continue.

Oh, and can we talk about the sheer number of moderators?  I thought there were three, and then we had three additional “guest moderators”.  The first one, Jim Cramer, just showed up on the dais and started asking questions after the first break. Weird.  Wasn’t three enough?

Sure, this debate was probably the most interesting of the three debates because we are getting to know that candidates better – after all, we are going to be hiring them for the job of Commander-in-Chief.  It is always good to see how the candidates react to this type of pressure-cooker environment.  That being said, the moderators did a lousy job creating meaningful questions and facilitating a respectful process.  Did they not do a dry run?  Work out the kinks?  Nail down the process?  Anticipate the candidates going over time?

For some reason, I think the Republican candidates knew that they were going to get ambushed by the moderator and informally agreed to take the high road – to not engage in a cage-fight with each other (although Governor Bush took a swipe at Senator Rubio).  Otherwise, this debate would have been REALLY awkward for all – other than CNBC.

Note: All quotations and calculations made using The New York Times transcript of the debate

To learn more tips on successfully moderating a panel discussion, try this user-friendly guide.
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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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