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How Debate Moderators Get It Wrong

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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It looks as if we're going to have problems with the questions at the presidential debates. Again.

This isn't because Fox News moderators are going to roll over for the Republican candidates on Thursday. I'm more afraid they're going to try to be tough with them, as this Politico story seems to indicate. 

During the last cycle of presidential nomination debates, I counted five types of questions moderators were posing:

  • Policy: Moderators sometimes ask candidates about their preferred positions on various topical issues.
  • Personal: Candidates occasionally get asked about their personalities, their cultural preferences and other things apparently intended to flesh out the "real" person behind the politician.
  • Gotcha: Reporters will challenge some hypocrisy or flip-flop by the candidate.
  • Political: Candidates will be grilled about campaign strategy and tactics, public opinion or something else related to the horse race.
  • Invitations to attack: A surprising number of questions were aimed at getting candidates to assail another candidate.

The first two categories are what debates should be about. Yes, even if those questions seem like softballs and the candidates give canned, on-message answers. The other questions are mistakes.

No, I'm not deceiving myself on how enlightened the electorate would be if only debates were high-minded recitations of policy papers. But to the extent these exercises have any value, it's in educating the (mildly attentive) public about those positions, and about pushing candidates to make promises about what they will do and who they will be if elected.

Remember, most voters have no idea what this crop of candidates has to say about anything, while reporters have been listening to stump speeches and interviews for months or even years. The press is desperate to "push candidates beyond their talking points," as Politico's Dylan Byers reports about the Fox News moderators for tomorrow's debate.

I'm all for asking about issues the candidates would rather not discuss, or pressing to some extent for specifics when politicians prefer generalities. But the goal of disrupting their prepared riffs has nothing to do with educating voters or encouraging healthy representation. It's just showcasing "tough" interview skills.

Invitations to attack are understandable. Mixing it up is presumably good for ratings. But these questions are unfair. Candidates who decline to play along look weak, but attacking a particular opponent on a particular topic may not be in their interest at that point. 

And political questions are usually about topics that are ephemeral or unimportant or both.

Four years ago, Fox News moderators in their early debate opportunity asked far too many gotcha questions and not nearly enough straight policy questions. I hope they'll do better this time, but the signs are not encouraging.

  1. One kind of question that doesn't typically get asked but that might be interesting would be about the art of "presidenting" -- on the political skills that help a president succeed at the job. I suppose this might fit under the personal category if it was asked.

  2. In other words, it's about the initial "promises" portion of the process of representation.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net