I had high hopes for the second presidential debate for the 2016 election. The debate format was intended to be a “town hall” format:
According to the Commission on Presidential Debates, “The second presidential debate will take the form of a town meeting, in which half of the questions will be posed directly by citizen participants and the other half will be posed by the moderator based on topics of broad public interest as reflected in social media and other sources. The candidates will have two minutes to respond and there will be an additional minute for the moderator to facilitate further discussion. The town meeting participants will be uncommitted voters selected by the Gallup Organization.”
Goodness gracious! It’s that “facilitate further discussion” that opens pandora’s box. The good news is that it should only last one minute (how bad can it get?) before the moderator moves on to another question.
The first question was posed by a town hall uncommitted voter – and each candidate responded, yet neither answered the nice lady’s question!
So then moderator Anderson Cooper jumped in with a follow-up question (completely appropriate, since neither of them answered the question), and then asked Secretary Clinton to respond! (You can fact-check my facts here). So she responded, then Trump asked to respond to Clinton…and moderator Martha Raddatz said, “Yes, you can respond to that.”
Yowza! Right out of the gate, they weren’t even following the prescribed process! And it didn’t get any better. According to Camilla Schick, they were just “following their instincts.”
Unfortunately, following your instincts vs. following the process lends itself to inconsistency and subconscious bias. I often felt the debate was between the candidates and the moderators!
Even though there was a countdown timer, the candidates often went over – sometimes being reigned in (or not). Speaking of timers, I wonder whether the “one minute facilitated discussion” was timed – especially since most of those “discussions” were between a specific candidate and one moderator. So who moderates the moderator?
And what about all those “uncommitted voters” who are sitting on the sidelines, waiting for their opportunity to ask a substantive question that they care about? I counted seven specific questions for a non-committed voter, one from social media and at least eight from the moderators. At first blush, that seems pretty balanced and in keeping with the intended format. Although I had a hard time distinguishing between a new question and a one-minute follow-up question.
I liked the fact that the first time the audience applauded, the moderators quickly asked for them to “please hold the applause” which is a great early intervention. After that, there was a fifty-fifty proposition whether the moderator would remind the audience or not!
Finally, I loved the question from town hall voter Karl Becker that the moderators were “saving” for the end: “My question to both of you is, regardless of the current rhetoric, would either of you name one positive thing that you respect in one another?” What a great question to end the debate on a high note! I just wish we could have had more of these questions posed and answered vs. debated with by the moderators.
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.”
Should the Moderator Fact-check the Political Debate Candidates?
How Did the Vice Presidential Debate Moderator Do?
Preparing and Facilitating Fabulous Panels – NSA Panel Discussion Debrief