Debate Moderator Survivor 2020 – Democratic Presidential Debate Edition!

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Round 2 – Democratic Presidential Debates – The Case of Herding Cats
August 1, 2019

It’s tribal council time for Survivor 2020 – Democratic Presidential Candidate Edition!  The DNC wants to winnow the slate of candidates – so don’t be surprised when Jake Tapper moderates a divisive debate next week to kick a few candidates off the island.

As a leading authority in panel moderation, I’ll be commenting on the performance of the debate moderators immediately after each debate. Here’s what you can expect next week:
  • Jake Tapper will reprise 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.  The candidate will have to speak to (and presumably tear down) the opposition in order to answer the question and state their own positions.  And simply because the fellow candidate’s name has been invoked, that candidate will have the opportunity to rebut for 30 seconds.
  • In a sea of sameness, this questioning strategy will also force the field to differentiate their positions between each other.  The moderators can’t poll the candidates this time (no show of hands or one-word, down-the-line questions).  Guess it was a little embarrassing last month. (What? You didn’t hear or understand the question?  Well, let’s not do that any more!)
  • Don Lemon is the least experienced of the three moderators – and the most controversial.  He has never moderated a presidential debate before (ok, he teed up three pre-recorded questions submitted by voters via Facebook – and botched the first one!  I don’t think that counts as “experienced”). Will he follow in the footsteps of fellow opinion journalist Rachel Maddow – allowing Kamala Harris to deliver her much-publicized (and prepared) pitch even though she didn’t have the floor and went way longer than she should have?  Or, will he serve as an objective moderator asking provocative questions the audience cares about?
  • Crosstalk seems to be the way to get the moderator’s attention, airtime, and floor.  Just ask Harris who inserted herself after a crosstalk on race relations, or Andrew Yang who contends that his microphone was cut off.  Let’s face it; Yang didn’t play the game and won’t let that happen again.  The first debate night had three instances of crosstalk; the second night had thirty.  That’s one cacophonous interruption every four minutes!  Crosstalk will continue.  The moderators will need to be firm yet fair.
  • Timers.  According to CNN, “colored lights will be used to help the candidates manage their remaining response times: 15 seconds = yellow; 5 seconds = flashing red; no time remaining = solid red.”  Well, that will help…maybe…but I doubt it will stop them from talking.
  • Interruptions.  “A candidate who consistently interrupts will have his or her time reduced,” is another rule that will have unintended consequences: The fringe candidates (those lower in the polls/donations who are further from the center) have nothing to lose by interrupting.  Historically, they don’t get a whole lot of airtime in the first place, so how can it hurt “their time” if everyone is supposed to have the same amount of time?  Doesn’t make sense to me.  Does that make sense to you?
FYI – Here’s what I look at during the debates. 
Specifically, I’ll be capturing the data: how long did each candidate speak? How many initial questions? How many rebuttals? Interruptions? A veritable wealth of information that will tell us immediately how fair and equitable the moderators are with the candidates. Check in on this blog for the latest deep dive into how the moderators kept the debate on track here!

For more information, check out my website at www.RulesAnalyst.com.  Book me now to comment (live , Zoom, or pre-recorded interviews) on next week’s debate by calling me at 480.399.8489 or set up a time to talk here
Kristin Arnold
Kristin Arnold
Award-winning author Kristin Arnold is an expert panel moderator and professional meeting facilitator.
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