Tonight, President Barack Obama and GOP nominee Mitt Romney will meet for their third and final debate before the Nov. 6 election. Voters will assess their performance while journalists will also assess how Bob Schieffer moderates their conversation. If recent history is any prediction, it will be a challenge.
There were 122 interruptions in the presidential debate on Oct. 16, 1.4 per minute on average. George Mason University’s Center for Media and Public Affairs counted the times Obama and Romney stepped on one another’s sentences, and compared it to their count from the first presidential debate. Some of the findings from a CMPA press release:
President Obama cut off Mr. Romney in mid-sentence 36 times, while Romney cut off Obama 28 times. Moderator Candy Crowley cut off Romney 23 times, compared to the 15 times she cut off Obama.
Combining these figures, Romney was interrupted while speaking 59 times, or 37% more often than the 43 times Obama was interrupted.
[Moderator Candy] Crowley interrupted the two candidates a total of 38 times, nearly twice as often as the 20 times they interrupted her (11 times by Romney and 9 times by Obama).
In Romney and Obama’s first debate on Oct. 3, CMPA said the candidates cut off moderator Jim Lehrer 30 times.
“The debates this year might be most remembered for the frequency (and ferocity) with which the candidates have interrupted each other,” Deborah Tannen wrote in a New York Times op-ed after the second debate. “But just as conversational styles vary widely by gender, ethnicity, geography, class and age, so do ideas about what constitutes interruptions, and whether and when they are good or bad.”
But our ideas about conversation inevitably shape how we perceive the debates. This means, for example, that what seems an interruption to one viewer might be merely an interjection to another. Conversation is an exchange of turns, and having a turn means having a right to hold the floor until you have finished what you want to say. So interrupting is not a violation if it doesn’t steal the floor. If your uncle is telling a long story at dinner, you may cut in to ask him to pass the salt. Most (but not all) people would say you aren’t really interrupting; you just asked for a temporary pause.
I tested this by attempting to count interruptions at the Oct. 11 vice-presidential debate, using Federal News Service’s transcript. I used as catholic an interpretation of interruptions as possible, counting what Tannen calls interjections.
Here’s my count, which is nowhere near as authoritative as the CMPA study:
- Number of times candidates interrupted moderator Martha Raddatz: 27
- Number of times Raddatz interrupted the candidates: 38
- Number of times candidates interrupted each other: 64
Crowley also interrupted the candidates 38 times during the Town Hall debate she moderated.
Broken down further:
- Raddatz interrupts Ryan: 21
- Raddatz interrups Biden: 17
- Biden interrupts Raddatz: 12
- Biden interrupts Ryan: 36
- Transcript indicates Biden “chuckles” while someone else is talking: 4
- Ryan interrupts Raddatz: 15
- Ryan interrupts Biden: 28
Here’s my worksheet.
Related: Associated Press television writer David Bauder writes a job description for moderators:
Craft sharp questions to get the candidates to talk, while being meticulously fair not to challenge one more than another. Keep an eye on the clock so one candidate doesn’t get to hog the time. Don’t be bullied; be firm in forcing the candidates to move on. But be flexible enough to keep a productive discussion flowing. Know the difference. Keep the focus off yourself. And do it all on live television before some 60 million people.