Analyzing debate questions: Is it time to rethink the town hall?

CJR has analyzed every question asked in presidential debates, going back to 1960. We’ll be using that data for stories throughout the 2016 race. You can read our previous coverage here and here

With fewer audience questions than in past years, an unrelenting focus on the characters of the candidates at the expense of substantive issues, and a shift in power from undecided voters to professional journalists moderating the event, last night’s presidential debate raised the possibility that the town hall format is due for a rethink.

A feature of the election cycle since 1992, the town-hall style was judged by some to be “the biggest loser of last night’s debate.” Moderators Anderson Cooper of CNN and Martha Raddatz of ABC News spent the debate wrestling gamely with the candidates and a vociferous audience for control of the evening, leaving the undecided voters on the stage largely redundant.

Fewer questions, fewer good ones

The intention behind the town hall format is to bring candidates into closer contact with voters. At times that has proved insightful, as in 1992, when Bill Clinton won plaudits for his empathetic response to a question about the personal impact of the national debt. In the three cycles that followed, audience members peppered candidates with at least 15 questions per debate, but the scattershot nature of their queries led to an adjustment of the rules in 2008.

Beginning with the Obama-McCain town hall, moderators were granted leeway to follow up on points raised by the candidates’ responses to voters, resulting in about five fewer audience questions, on average. The goal was to foster a more sustained discussion, but with moderators taking such an active role, the audience becomes ancillary to the proceedings.

The power transfer, from audience to moderators, was particularly acute on Sunday night, with Cooper and Raddatz forcefully asserting themselves, and the audience fading into the background. Last night, eight of the 11 questions came from undecided voters on the stage, with the remaining questions chosen from those submitted online. Cooper and Raddatz were aggressive with their follow-ups, piggybacking on every question until the final minutes, when they attempted to fit in as many audience members as possible. The moderators took the liberty to ask about topics slightly outside of the audience question focus, in an effort to cover more ground. When the moderators did turn to the voters, those questions largely seemed lacking both in scope and substance.

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The audience questions weren’t all bad. Viral sensation Ken Bone asked insightfully and concisely about energy policy, and Gorbah Hamed forced Donald Trump to directly confront the Islamophobia in which his campaign has trafficked. But there were also vague and redundant queries that brought little to the table. “Do you believe you can be a devoted president to all the people in the United States?” isn’t exactly probing, and it allowed both candidates to shift into versions of their stump speeches.

Topics missed

The town hall debate normally serves as an opportunity for citizens to address personal issues they are grappling with. In past debates– like the 2000 debate when 15 questions were asked — topics included education, the death penalty, agriculture, and the military. After two debates this cycle, there are still a number of topics unaddressed.

Equal pay and the minimum wage have yet to be mentioned in either presidential debate. The issue was last asked during a question once during the 2012 debates. Additionally, many social issues remained on the sidelines, including LGBTQ rights, abortion, and the war on drugs.

Most noticeable in their absence were immigration and gun control. Trump and Clinton both managed to sneak in some talk about their stance on immigration following a question posed by a woman who identified herself as a Muslim American. The core of her question, however, was about feeling safe given the islamophobia in this country. Both nominees used it as an opportunity to address their thoughts and policies on immigration.

As for gun control, the topic was not broached throughout the course of the 90-minute debate. According to a CNN/ORC poll, 55 percent of Americans favor stricter gun laws. The survey also found that Americans tend to favor stricter laws following shooting tragedies.

In the twittersphere, many people were upset that no questions about policing surfaced during this debate. In the first debate there was one question asked by Lester Holt concerning the issue. 

Personal characteristics again in focus

The main topic of the night, as in the first debate, was the candidates themselves. Perhaps unavoidably, following a week that saw revelations about Donald Trump’s tax holiday, Hillary Clinton’s public versus private stances, and–most disturbingly–a newly release recording of Trump asserting he is entitled to sexually assault women, the voters wanted to hear the candidates defend their character, and attack their opponent’s. 

The first two questions, along with several follow-ups from the moderators, focused on the candidates’ behavior, past statements, and judgment. It was not until more than 24 minutes into the evening that a question was asked about policy, when an audience member asked about healthcare.

Overall, five of the 11 questions posed by the audience in the hall and those culled from the web touched on aspects of temperament. With more than 40 percent of the questions from this year’s two debates coming on the topic, 2016 has seen an unprecedented focus on character.

About that final question… 

There was tension between the candidates throughout the debate–especially when journalists live tweeting the event took note that Clinton and Trump did not shake hands at the start. During some of Clinton’s answers, Trump stood menacingly behind her. It all led up to the final question of the night, slipped in at the last minute, that went back to personal characteristics. The question, which was met with nervous laughter as viewers waiting to see what the candidates had to say, was:

My question to both of you is, regardless of the current rhetoric, would either of you name one positive thing that you respect in one another?

Although both candidates made it clear they highly disapprove of each other, Clinton responded that she admired Trump’s children. As for Trump, he said he admired that Clinton is a fighter. Though the question was ridiculed by some commentators, it has actually appeared, in slightly altered form, in the past. At one of the 1988 debates, moderator Ann Compton asked George H. W. Bush:

In this campaign some hard and very bitter things have been spoken by each side about each side. If you’d consider for a moment Governor Dukakis and his years of public service, is there anything nice you can say about him, anything you find admirable?


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Carlett Spike and Pete Vernon are the authors of this piece. Spike is a CJR contributor and Vernon is a CJR Delacorte Fellow.

TOP IMAGE: Images by Gage Skidmore