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August 6, 2019

With 24 candidates vying for a spot in the next debate cycle, this round of debates was much like herding cats with the intention to differentiate the field so that only a few cats will be left standing.  It wasn’t meant to be sweet.  And I wish I could say it was fair to ALL the candidates, but that would be lying.  The natural tendency is to gravitate toward the front runners in the center, and this round was no exception.

Moderator Jake Tapper continued to use his divisive questioning strategy used during the second Republican debate in 2016: Direct a question to a candidate asking about an opposing candidate’s position – primarily in the areas of healthcare, foreign policy, and defeating President Trump.  The candidate then has to speak to the question (and the opposition) and state his or her own position. And whenever the fellow candidate’s name has been invoked, that candidate has the opportunity to rebut for 30 seconds  – or can be asked by the moderator to respond. Ergo, many of these questions would create a bit of back and forth between candidates – the most was nine rebuttals or responses to one question!

There were several tense moments when Ryan challenged Sanders, DeBlasio called out Biden (repeatedly), Gillibrand and Harris ganged up on Biden whereas Sanders and Warren decided to call a temporary truce and not pick on each other.

Moderator Dana Bash would also use this questioning strategy, but her favorite was a direct, no-nonsense approach asking straightforward questions on climate change, the economy, student loans, and equal pay.  These kinds of direct questions would get one or two responses but no fireworks.

Moderator Don Lemon favored the comparison game where he would tee up a comment, position, statement, or action from the candidate’s past which is not consistent with the current position around immigration, racial inequality, and criminal justice.

Furthermore, the moderators would ask for a 15-second “point of clarification” to get a wishy-washy candidate to commit to a specific position.

They obviously curated the list of questions ahead of time and practiced the transitions between key segments.  All three moderators were sitting at the same table and there were no A/V problems this go around! (whew!)

So let’s take a look at how the moderators managed the airtime:

  • They were much more balanced in directing the initial questions on the second night than the first night:  By the first commercial break, three candidates had not been asked one question (Delany, Ryan, and Williamson) whereas only DeBlasio hadn’t gotten a question on the second night.  But it was still a bit uneven with the “fringe candidates” (those lowest in the polling numbers who are standing at the right/left edge of the stage) getting less attention than the center candidates.
  • When you have the name of another candidate in the body of the initial question, you are virtually guaranteeing that the mentioned candidate is going to rebut the initial comment.  So if the majority of your questions include the name of Warren, Sanders, Biden, or Harris, guess what?  They will have more time to comment!
  • You may not realize the subliminal power the moderator has in deciding who gets to respond.  Sure, if a candidate’s name is mentioned, the moderator has to offer that candidate the opportunity to respond for 30 seconds.  After that, it’s like being called on at school:  The candidates would raise their hand to indicate an interest in speaking.  Technically, the moderator would look at the number of cumulative responses along with the collective amount of time the candidate had been speaking (airtime) and direct questions or responses to those candidates who have less airtime.  This is hard to do in the heat of the moment as you can tell from the graph below:

That’s the idea, at least. David Bauder of AP Media says, “The reality can be much more nuanced. Sometimes the limit is strictly enforced, sometimes not. The most memorable exchange of the first debate — Kamala Harris challenging Joe Biden on busing — happened because producers [aka the moderators] allowed the moment to unfold despite the rules.”

“When a debate actually breaks out in the debate, you just let it go,” said Mark Lukasiewicz, dean of Hofstra University’s School of Communication and a former NBC News executive. “You let it go until it runs out of gas.”

Finally, the moderator has to intervene appropriately.  After all, that’s why they reinforce the ground rules at the beginning of both debates:

  • “You will each receive one minute to answer questions, 30 seconds for responses and rebuttals and 15 additional seconds if a moderator asks for a clarification. The timing lights will remind you of these limits.”  Too bad we can’t see the lights, but as a pretty consistent rule, they ALL went over time – with the exception of Biden who seemed to run out of steam once or twice.
  • “Please respect that [the time limits] and please refrain from interrupting your fellow candidates during their allotted time.  A candidate infringing on another candidate’s time will have his or her time reduced.” Yeah, right.  There were a few interruptions – especially at the beginning of the first night as the candidates were testing out the moderators.  Warren tried to butt in, but Tapper put her in the “que” by saying, “Hold on.  We’re going to come to you in one second”…and then came back to her with a question.   For the most part, the candidates tried to be civil, waiting for their turn to speak with only 18 instances of crosstalk on the first night (down from 30 last month)!  But I still don’t see how the moderators can (or did) “reduce” their time after an inevitable interruption.  Check out the stats:

Here’s how they graciously enforced the rules when the time was up (although TVLine  said they “cracked the whip loudly and often during the proceedings, earning some admonishment on social media for continually cutting off respondents just as they were getting to the meat of their answer.”)

  1. “Thank you…”  Allow candidate to finish the sentence.
  2. “Thank you…” expect the candidate to finish the sentence, but continues to talk.
  3. “Thank you [title].”  I suppose adding the title of Senator, Congressman, Mayor, etc. adds a bit of gravitas – like my mother adding my middle name when upset with me (What have you been up to, Kristin Jane Wahlner? – yeah, that’s my maiden name, but I digress!).  And if they keep talking, the moderator ratchets it up a notch:
  4. “Please stick to the rules.”
  5. And if that doesn’t work, “We’re going to move on.”

I didn’t hear the crack of a whip, although I did hear a consistent drumbeat to keep on time.  The result?  Most of the candidates kept pretty close to the one-minute rule, but none of them kept to the 30 second response rule and they didn’t have to be a butthead about it!  (personally, I would like to see the microphone turned off at step 5!

All in all, it was a fairly well run presidential debate, considering the sheer number of candidates.  It was too long (almost 3 hours!) with three commercial breaks and two protest moments to add to the action! (BTW, I think it was silly to expect Biden to continue speaking until the disruption had passed).

We get the month of August off and we’ll be back for the next set of debates on September 12 and possibly September 13.  In the meantime, stay posted for our predictions once the September moderators are announced.  Stay tuned!


For more information, check out my website at  Book me now to comment (live , Zoom, or pre-recorded interviews) on the next debate by calling me at 480.399.8489 or set up a time to talk here


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Photo by Miguel Henriques on Unsplash / Canva

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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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