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Debates Benefit From Voters' Easy Questions

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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The town-hall format for the presidential debate on Sunday night will let undecided voters ask the questions.

I'm looking forward to it. Journalists are often tempted to ask "gotcha" questions about flip-flops or, even worse, questions about the polls and campaign events that tell us nothing about how the candidates would act as president. Regular voters are far more likely to ask about policy. That's a good thing!

Seth Masket at Mischiefs of Faction argues against giving undecided voters so much control over the agenda. True, truly undecided voters are a small and atypical group at this point in the campaign, and they score relatively poorly on tests of political knowledge.

But town-hall debates have been successful.

Take the one in 2012 between President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney. Voters asked 10 questions. Seven were about policy. Some were inelegantly worded, but each introduced a good topic. Here are some examples:

  • Jobs: “What can you say to reassure me, but more importantly my parents, that I will be able to sufficiently support myself after I graduate?” Another question focused on outsourcing.
  • What would happen to middle-class tax deductions and credits under a tax-reform plan to lower rates and eliminate tax preferences?
  • Immigration policy: “What do you plan on doing with immigrants without their green cards that are currently living here as productive members of society?”
  • Benghazi: “Who was it that denied enhanced security and why?”

Romney was asked how he would differ from George W. Bush, and Obama was asked by a somewhat disappointed voter what he had done to earn a second term. Both are softballs that no journalist would ask. Any decent candidate would have a ready response allowing them to brag about their records and plans. But that doesn’t make them bad questions, since it matters what the candidates choose to brag about. 

Easy questions usually introduce better debate topics than tough ones. Reporters shy away from asking the obvious, including on policy, since they know basically what the candidates will say. But many voters haven’t heard the responses, or realize the candidates even have positions on certain policies. 

Since the voters' queries aren’t typically worded as well as journalists' questions, it’s helpful for the professional moderators to be ready with follow-ups. The best follow-ups, however, often come from the candidates, who (if normally prepared) know what their opponents are leaving out or embellishing.

The most famous town-hall question ever came in 1992, the first time the format was tried, when a voter asked how the “national debt” was affecting the candidates personally.

In one sense, that’s an awful question: Federal budget deficits aren’t necessarily harmful at all, and the voter probably meant “bad economy” rather than deficit. But it elicited very useful answers from George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

Easy questions, focused on policy: Excellent. 

  1. Remember this was just weeks after the attacks in Benghazi, Libya, so it was a perfectly legitimate topic at that time.

  2. The only poor question asked was a final one about what misperceptions voters might have about each candidate. While I’m OK with giving candidates a chance to describe themselves (that’s a form of campaign promise, too), focusing on a “misperception” seemed too likely to elicit answers about the back and forth of campaign attacks. That’s not as helpful to anyone.

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

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

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