ALL About the Moderator’s Role in the First 2020 Presidential Debate

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The first 2020 Presidential Debate is scheduled to take place next week on Tuesday, September 29, where President Donald Trump will face off former Vice President Joe Biden.  Deemed to be one of the most-watched TV programs this fall, (think Super Bowl-level viewership – although, unlike the SuperBowl, there will be no commercials during the debate!),  Fox News Host Chris Wallace will be the lone debate moderator. His job is to tee up topics that are of interest to the American public – and keep the conversation flowing and on track.  Talk about herding cats!

As the Presidential Debates “Rules Analyst,” here’s a summary of interesting facts about the role of the debate moderator:

How Presidential Debate Moderators Are Chosen

The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) is a nonpartisan group that has overseen all general-election debates since 1987.  The CPD has sole discretion to pick the moderators and uses three criteria in selecting the moderators:

  • Familiarity with the candidates and the major issues of the presidential campaign
  • Extensive experience in live television and broadcast news
  • An understanding that the debate should focus maximum time and attention on the candidates and their views

The moderators are typically announced several weeks before the debates (September 2, 2020).  Except for a couple of exceptions, a single moderator is used for Presidential (vs. primary) debates.  Although this year, the decision for a single moderator could be a reflection of the coronavirus pandemic and the need to maintain social distancing.

The presidential candidates are not allowed to vet or to veto the choices.  Although this year, President Trump’s communications director, Tim Murtaugh, issued a statement “claiming, without evidence, that ‘some’ of the chosen moderators ‘can be identified as clear opponents of President Trump’ and charging that Mr. Biden ‘will actually have a teammate onstage.'”

According to the New York Times, “Mr. Murtaugh did not say which of the moderators he was accusing of bias, and the Trump campaign did not clarify when asked for additional comment. He also wrote that the choices ‘are not the moderators we would have recommended if the campaign had been allowed to have any input.'”

Well, no!  Candidates are not allowed to have any input! Commission co-chairs, Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., Dorothy S. Ridings, and Kenneth Wollack, wrote in their announcement,

“We are grateful to these experienced journalists, who will help ensure that the general election presidential debates continue to serve their unique educational purpose of helping the public learn about the candidates. Each individual brings great professionalism to moderating and understands that the purpose of the 2020 debate formats is to facilitate in-depth discussion of major topics.”

Chris Wallace, the First 2020 Presidential Debate Moderator

President Trump’s least favorite anchor on Fox News, Chris Wallace, whose tough grilling in a one-hour interview last month was must-see TV, was selected as one the first 2020 Presidential Debate moderators. He is also the only one of the four who has prior Presidential debate experience.  Mr. Wallace received high marks for his debut debate in 2016 and is known for his sharp interviewing style.

According to , “he received strong reviews from longtime political observers and even rival journalists.” Wallace “delivered a sterling performance,” said CNN, “focusing on substantive issues that matter to American voters.”

The New Yorker’s then TV critic Emily Nussbaum tweeted, “Gotta say, Chris Wallace is a pro. Cool demeanor, asking clear follow-ups.” The New York Times columnist Bret Stephens tweeted near the debate’s close, “So far the winner of this debate is Chris Wallace.” Even the author Stephen King weighed in, tweeting, “Chris Wallace did a good job. Taking no shit, like a veteran teacher monitoring detention hall.”

The Presidential Debate Format

According to Factly, “the Presidential Debate format has significantly changed over the years. Each debate during the initial Lincoln vs. Douglas debates lasted three hours, with the first speaker speaking for an hour followed by the second speaker who was given time for an hour and a half. The first speaker was then given 30 minutes for rebuttal.

  • The first general elections presidential debates in 1960 followed different formats in each of the debates. The first & last debates had opening & closing statements, while the two debates in middle had each of the candidates taking turns to answer the questions posed. This debate was moderated by a panel of journalists.
  • The debates organized by LWV followed an approach, wherein the candidates were posed questions in turns for them to answer. Each of these debates had a moderator.
  • The CPD retained the same format in 1988. However, they introduced a town hall in 1992, where select citizens were provided the opportunity to ask questions.
  • In 2000, the CPD brought about a change in the format, with the candidates sitting across the table along with the moderator rather than having separate podiums.
  • In 2012 & 2016, different formats were used for the first & last debate. The two debates were divided into six segments of 15 minutes each, with each of the candidates discussing one major issue facing the country. One debate was dedicated to domestic topics and the other for foreign affairs.”

For the 2020 debate year, the CPD said, “This year’s debates will build on the successful 2012 and 2016 debate formats which introduced longer segments, allowing the candidates to focus on critical issues.”

  • The first and third presidential debates will be divided into six segments of approximately 15 minutes each on major topics to be selected by the moderator and announced at least one week before the debate. The moderator will open each segment with a question, after which each candidate will have two minutes to respond. Candidates will then have an opportunity to respond to each other. The moderator will use the balance of the time in the segment for a deeper discussion of the topic.
  • The Vice-presidential debate will be divided into nine segments of approximately 10 minutes each. The moderator will ask an opening question, after which each candidate will have two minutes to respond. The moderator will use the balance of the time in the segment for a deeper discussion of the topic.
  • The second presidential debate will take the form of a town meeting, in which the questions will be posed by citizens from the South Florida area. The candidates will have two minutes to respond to each question and there will be an additional minute for the moderator to facilitate further discussion. The town meeting participants will be uncommitted voters selected under the supervision of Dr. Frank Newport, Senior Scientist, Gallup.

No Audience at the First 2020 Presidential Debate

With the COVID crisis, the first debate will not have an audience.  It’s not an unprecedented move. After all, the first televised debate in 1960 didn’t have an audience. During the next round of debates in 1976 the host (the League of Women Voters) vetted the studio audiences and instructed them to be quiet.

Our first pandemic-period presidential primary debate without an audience was during the Biden/Sanders debate. New York Times’ no jeers or cheers disrupting the proceedings, no playing to the crowd by the two men onstage. The candidates, typically armed with punch lines and YouTube-able zingers to make the most of limited speaking time, had ample room to dwell on substance. Moderators had the grace and good sense to stay silent when the candidates questioned each other directly.”

The Slate’s Fred Kaplan confirmed that “The debate between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders was more focused than usual not just because the match was one-on-one, but also because the format—a small network studio with no live audience, meaning no campaign staffers or other partisans egging their candidate on—held no rewards, and thus no incentives, for red-meat applause lines or shouting…Sunday night’s contest showed that, in the absence of a crowd cheering on the combatants’ more pandering tendencies, a debate can be a useful exercise after all—a way to gauge the candidates’ views and character.”

The First 2020 Presidential Debate Topics

Interestingly enough, the topics are selected by the moderator.  The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) announced the six topics – selected by Moderator Wallace. The topics were announced in advance “in order to encourage deep discussion of the leading issues facing the country.”  But they are still “subject to possible changes because of news developments” – just in case something else “new” happens!

Each segment will have a dedicated a 15-minute “block” of time to fill 90 minutes of the first debate. Although “the moderators will have the ability both to extend the segments and to ensure that the candidates have equal speaking time.” (Note: these topics are not in priority order, or in the order the topics will be addressed):

  • The Trump and Biden Records
  • The Supreme Court
  • Covid-19
  • The Economy
  • Race and Violence in our Cities
  • The Integrity of the Election

“Regulate the Conversation”

The CPD also announced that “while the focus [of the debates] will properly be on the candidates, the moderator will regulate the conversation so that thoughtful and substantive exchanges occur.”  Yet Eddie Scarry, in an Op-Ed piece for the Washington Examiner says, “That sounds innocuous, and it would be if not for the fact that the national media (members of which will be moderating the debates) have proven themselves utterly incapable of regulating anything, let alone ‘thoughtful and substantive’ conversation.”

Okay, let’s give Moderator Wallace the benefit of the doubt, give some credit to his experience, and the role he is expected to fill:

  • Select Great QuestionsModerator Wallace will ask the expected questions (Biden will get questioned on his 1994 crime bill, Trump will get questioned on his Coronavirus response), AND the unexpected.  It is these “other” questions that Wallace will “pull out of the left field, so to speak, where neither candidate was expecting them…or neither candidate is truly prepared for.”  Now THAT is what I am really interested in.
  • Keep the Conversation Focused.  Both candidates are prone to rambling off-topic.  Nate Ashworth, Founder of Election Central reports, “having both candidates on stage together, with a propensity to meander in their answers and tie things together to create a word salad of thought, will create a job for the moderators to reign in.”  Depending on the ground rules Moderator Wallace sets at the beginning, he may intervene or he may let them ramble.  Hard to tell at this point.
  •  Rules Will be Broken.  Even though Moderator Wallace will put some prevention strategies in place, Trump and Biden (but not quite as much as Biden is quite attentive to time limits) will not follow the prescribed process. “I do expect that the rules will be broken,” said Northeastern University Professor Emeritus Alan Schroeder, an expert on presidential debates.  Political analyst Jon Keller echos this sentiment. “It all adds up to a nightmare for the debate moderators…No matter how adroitly they handle 4½ {sic} hours of mudslinging and (likely) rule-breaking, they are sure to be scorched on social media. Once upon a time, moderating a presidential debate was seen as the apex of a journalist’s career. Now? Be careful what you wish for.”

Should the Presidential Debate Moderator Fact-Check the Candidates?

That word, “regulate” has a few media pundits worried.  Scarry continues, “Are Wallace and the moderators of the subsequent two debates at liberty to ‘regulate the conversation’ by jumping in to declare matters of opinion false? Are they at liberty to ‘regulate the conversation’ by halting a line of attack to deliver one of their searing ‘fact checks,’ which, as we’ve seen time and time again, are unreliable?”

I say no, absolutely not.  During a debate (as opposed to an interview when Wallace did indeed “press Trump as few Fox journalists have”), it’s up to the candidates to call out the disparities and for the media to weigh in post-debate.  That being said, the moderator can ask probing questions to delve deeper into the logic and reasoning of the assertion – if time allows.  Ninety minutes goes incredibly fast and the moderator has to pick and choose where to probe deeper.

Glenn Kessler, of the Washington Post’s Fact Checker, is wary of live fact-checking during the debate by a moderator. “People who are watching the debate want to see how the candidates answer, react. They really don’t care about the moderator.” Kessler agrees that “moderators can needle the candidates into exposing flaws in their arguments by pushing them to clarify their point.”

To counter that argument, Poynter Fact Checker  says “egregious falsehoods…ought to be called out.” PolitiFact editor Angie Holan concurs: “The moderator shouldn’t sit there like a potted plant while a candidate says something that is obviously inaccurate.”

At the very least, it will be a lively debate watched by millions across the country and around the world.  Stay tuned for the next blog where I’ll be covering how Moderator Wallace does herding cats!

 

For more information, check out my website at www.RulesAnalyst.com.  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

Related Articles:

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Kristin Arnold
Kristin Arnold
Award-winning author Kristin Arnold is an expert panel moderator and professional meeting facilitator.
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