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The challenges of debate moderating have grown along with partisan differences

US President Barack Obama and Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney debate on October 16, 2012 at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. Undecided voters asked questions during a town hall format.
US President Barack Obama and Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney debate on October 16, 2012 at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. Undecided voters asked questions during a town hall format.

There continue to be questions about how moderators approach Presidential debates and about whether the extra time President Obama has received in the first two debates indicates moderator bias in his favor. 

I had chalked up the concerns to Republican hyper-partisanship, such as we saw with many Democrats criticizing Jim Lehrer for his moderating — as though Obama would’ve won the first debate if only Lehrer had asserted himself more.   However, even CNN has been doing significant follow-up on its own Candy Crowley’s performance in debate number two. 

Maybe it’s not just hardcore GOP loyalists who are questioning Crowley’s decision-making on when to cut in and when to allow the candidates to take more time. I thought she did pretty well, but there are plenty of critics.

As someone who has moderated hundreds of debates, I thought I’d share my thoughts on what we’ve seen so far in this election. Though I’ve never moderated a Presidential debate, with its incredible level of attention, concern about rules, and demands by campaigns, there are certain fundamentals regardless of the office or issue at stake.

Time Doesn't Matter...Too Much
First, as strange as this may sound, the time taken by each candidate has little to do with who has an advantage.   Yes, it’s always possible for a candidate to use another minute to fire off the defining line of the night. However, the well-practiced zingers or essential policy explainers are not left to the end of a candidate’s statement, as the clock is running out. 

I’m sure Mitt Romney wasn’t thinking after the last debate, “If only I would’ve had that extra 90-seconds, and Obama hadn’t gotten 90 more than he deserved.”  Both men front-loaded their major talking points and were going to get them in. Neither man could legitimately say he didn’t have a chance to make his strongest points. At some point, a time advantage could make a difference in who wins or loses, but an extra 90-seconds in a debate longer than 90-minutes isn’t going to do it.

Serving The Audience
As a moderator, you also have to think about what best serves your audience. I never guarantee candidates equal time, as it’s my job to serve the listeners, not their campaigns. I strive to get close to equal time, but can’t make any guarantee. Some speakers get to the point succinctly and have their points well put together. Others are messier in their arguments and eat up time just building up any head of steam. 

If the moderator holds to a strict time limit, you run the risk of frustrating listeners by cutting off the rambler just as the candidate is getting to the point. There are methods a moderator can use to help guide the speaker toward being more succinct, but there’s no guarantee the person will be able to comply.

Isn’t this inherently unfair to the succinct speaker? No. The purpose of the debate is to allow the ideas to compete.  It’s not a boxing match that’s about landing punches in a given time. The succinct debater has a big advantage, regardless of how much time the candidate has. That’s why Mitt Romney’s victory in the first debate was so lopsided — he won on the conciseness and clarity of his answers, coupled with Obama’s inability to get to his central points.  Obviously, there are those who thought Obama’s arguments were still more compelling than Romney’s, and that Romney lacked essential details.  However, for most viewers of the first debate, it was stylistically no contest.

Equal Time Is Not A Guarantee
When candidates are allowed to talk to each other directly, it’s very difficult to assure equal time. Even CNN’s clock that registers elapsed time for each candidate is subject to squishiness. Unless a debate is extremely formal, with carefully controlled time limits and a ban on candidates following-up with each other, you’re only going to have an approximation of time balance. I thought Crowley did pretty well to land the second debate with the balance she did. I’m not sure I could get it that close for a debate of that length. She had the added challenge of trying to determine when to cut in on President Obama’s lengthier answers. Also, Romney’s speaking rhythm allows more space for interruption. It’s tougher to break in on Obama.

Moderating Is A Balancing Act
Moderators are always trying to balance a need to move on to the next topic with allowing a candidate to answer an opponent’s charge. Sometimes, you open that door for a candidate, only to regret it later when the politician starts into a monologue, instead of confining the response to the previous challenge. Sometimes moderators, having gotten burned, will become less tolerant of such expansive rebuttals, as the debate goes on. Moderators are always juggling competing goals, and it’s a difficult job (at least for me).

Unfortunately, there are those who think debate moderators attempt to influence the outcome of the debate and the performances of the candidates. Maybe I’m naïve, but I can’t imagine any journalist who’s worked hard enough to get to the position of Presidential debate moderator subordinating his or her career in an effort to getting someone elected. Mainstream political journalism is like national sports reporting. You really don’t care who wins the Super Bowl, you want great story lines to explore with your audience. Yes, sports reporters have affinities for the hometown teams of their youth, but that can’t compete with the professional goal of covering great stories. 

Yes, most journalists in mainstream media probably have a stronger cultural and political affinity for Obama, as he’s more like them. However, it doesn’t mean a journalist is going to sacrifice the better story to intentionally provide a benefit to the President.