October 15, 2014

In the next two weeks, candidates from 11 hotly contested elections will face each other in statewide debates. Candidates in nine other states faced each other in debates already this month. In these days of the tightly scripted message-of-the-day campaigning, debates might be the closest voters get to hearing unscripted viewpoints.

Screen shot 2014-10-12 at 8.24.44 PMMy Poynter colleague Jill Geisler, a veteran journalist in her home state of Wisconsin, moderated one of those high-profile TV debates last week. Republican Gov. Scott Walker faced Democrat Mary Burke. Walker is sometimes mentioned as a 2016 presidential possibility, but he has to get past Burke first and the polls show it is a tight race. The debate focused on typical fare; jobs, increasing minimum wage, social issues including abortion and health care, especially involving health care for women.

Geisler said a key to a successful debate lies in part to holding the candidates to strict time limits and even having the power to cut a long-winded candidate’s microphone off (which happened in the Wisconsin debate.) The Wisconsin debate also included a rule that can allow the moderator and journalists to try to force the candidates to deliver specific answers.

Jill: When I agreed to serve as moderator, I proposed the addition of a “moderator’s option” of an additional 30 seconds each in the event a topic called for it.   Both candidates’ camps agreed. (The negotiations around debate formats are fascinating, by the way. Right down to coin flips for order of questions and who gets to stand where.)  When the campaigns agreed to that proposed “moderator’s option,” we used it to press for specifics.

For example, the topic of Wisconsin’s current minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. A panelist asked the candidates what they felt the state’s minimum wage should be. When only one of the two gave a number (Burke proposed raising it to $10.10 over a multi-step process), and Gov. Walker talked about aspiring to create jobs that pay much more than the minimum wage, I exercised the moderator’s option to follow up with Gov. Walker on a request for a specific number.

I asked Geisler how the journalists on the debate panel decided what to ask:

Jill: In our case, the journalists were aware of the subject areas their colleagues on the panel intended to cover. This was done to avoid duplication of effort and provide the greatest possible array of subjects. Because we live in a world today in which candidates throw around “facts” that are often in dispute, the panel and I agreed on the goal of asking well-researched, fact based questions that, whenever possible, cited non-partisan, verifiable sources.

Al: How did you go about selecting questions that people really want answered?

Jill: We discussed our goals – serving the greatest possible number of voters with specific answers. Then we discussed issues where there were clear differences between the candidates. We also discussed issues in which candidates had, until then, refrained from providing specifics on their platforms. We also wanted to respect the fact that there are issues of statewide importance and some that are hotter in the area of the state from which we were broadcasting. That’s how the topic of sand mining found its way into the questions.

Do televised debates matter?

It may very well be that televised political debates do little to change voter behavior. But lots of academic research shows they do have value. The main value of political debates, researchers say, is that voters learn new information about the candidates, especially important for newcomers to the political scene. The FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver says in presidential debates, the challenger nearly always has the most to gain, and sometimes does gain from the exposure. Mostly the gains, Silver says, come from undecided voters, not from the other side. Why? Debate watchers tend to see what they want to see, and debates tend to affirm what they already believed about candidates.

John Sides, writing for Washington Monthly, pointed out that even the most famous TV debates may be misunderstood. The Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960 is often cited as a game-changer after Richard Nixon sweated profusely and Kennedy calmly answered questions. Sides points out:

In Theodore White’s famous recounting of the election, Kennedy appeared ”calm and nerveless”while Nixon was ”haggardlooking to the point of sickness.” Two Gallup polls suggest that after the debate Kennedy moved from 1 point behind Nixon to 3 points ahead, although it is difficult to know whether that shift is statistically meaningful. Both Stimson and Erikson and Wlezien find that Kennedy’s margin after all of the debates was only slightly higher than his margin on the eve of the first debate. Moreover, any trend in Kennedy’s favor began before the debates were held. Clearly 1960 was a close election, and many factors, including the debates, may have contributed something to Kennedy’s narrow victory. But it is difficult to say that the debates were crucial.

Absent any big gaffes or headline producing news from the candidates themselves, which are rare in televised debates, the moderator can become news.  Viewers critique whether the journalists are too soft or too tough on candidates.  Geisler said she didn’t want to become a focus of any post-debate chatter so she even had to consider what to wear.

Jill: I met with the panelists several times for some terrific brainstorming in which we talked about potential topics and how to frame questions fairly. Then there were the usual production details that TV folks sweat over — writing my opening remarks to set a tone and share the rules so things were transparent to the folks at home, working on camera angles and lines of sight for countdown clocks, determining how the panelists and I would use the “moderator’s option” to press for more details, and even how I’d make sure that I had a decent “back of my hair day” because the moderator is seen from behind in so many of the wide shots, and I didn’t want anything regarding my clothing or hair to be a distraction. And one more thing: although my wardrobe has quite a few red and blue jackets, I chose pink, so no one would presume a political message.

A 2013 Washington Post story pointed out that a wide range of factors including post-debate spin can heavily influence debate watchers. The Post’s story points to a number of studies that showed how different network commentators affected who people thought won a debate. And there were other more subtle factors that come into play, including how good-looking the candidate is on TV.

John Wihbey at the Kennedy School has compiled a list of studies on debate effects, and many study factors that one wouldn’t think would have any impact at all, like what television setting a voter is using. But these things do matter, at least a little bit.

Several studies suggest that a candidate’s appearance during the debates could have a big impact. MIT’s Gabriel Lenz and Chappell Lawson have found that attractive candidates disproportionately benefit from debates, with new support coming especially from less informed voters. The College of Wooster’s Angela Bos, Bas van Doorn and Abbey Smanik found that HDTV hurt John McCain in 2008, with viewers reacting negatively to his appearance on higher-resolution screens.

 

Screen shot 2014-10-12 at 8.25.09 PMEvery election season, it seems, there is one final question that journalists turn to to reveal something personal about the candidates. Over the years panelists have asked candidates if they know the price of a loaf of bread or a gallon of milk. I have seen journalists ask candidates what their favorite “drink” is. In one especially memorable debate the first candidate said gin and tonic, the rest of the candidates said milk or orange juice and left the first poor sucker hanging. In the Wisconsin debate, the journalists asked the candidates to say something, anything nice about the other. I asked Jill what the journalists were fishing for:

Jill: I think it might be seen as the antithesis of the very negative advertising in today’s races. It’s a check to see if the candidate can rise above the rancor, however briefly.

But in our case, the question also served a very practical purpose. Debates involve tricky timing. The moderator has to end the questions in time for closing statements from both candidates. But what do you do if there’s only one or two minutes left before the time you have stop in order to get to those closing statements? You need a question that, in fairness, does not require a complicated answer. So during our debate prep, when one of our journalists told me he’d thought of asking such a question, I asked him to keep it ready in case we needed it. It turned out, we did. I told the candidates we had only a short time left before their final statements and could only fit in one with a brief reply. So “can you find something positive” was asked. Now you know the inside scoop.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
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