Analyzing 547 debate questions: This year, personal qualities take center stage

This year’s first presidential debate focused more on personality than any other in US history–befitting a match-up featuring two of the least popular candidates ever.

And if the next two debates shape up like the first, the debate season as a whole would set a new high-water mark for the proportion of debate questions involving personality traits.

Moderator Lester Holt used the first debate to challenge Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton to defend their character and assure the public they possess the qualities needed to sit in the Oval Office. Of Holt’s 13 questions to the candidates, five concerned personal characteristics.

According to a CJR analysis of all 547 questions asked in presidential debates* since 1960, Monday’s showdown featured a far higher percentage of these type of questions than any other year. 

Concerns about character, experience, and judgment have been voiced at debates in every presidential election year going back to the Kennedy-Nixon tilts in 1960. On Monday night, however, the 38 percent of inquiries devoted to personal characteristics was nearly double the portion of personal questions asked of Bill Clinton and Bob Dole over three debates in 1996–the previous peak of questions on the topic.

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On Monday, Holt asked Donald Trump about his evasiveness on releasing his tax returns, his perpetuation of the birther lie, and comments toward women. Meanwhile, Holt challenged Clinton’s transparency in her decision to use a private email server. Finally, both candidates were given the opportunity to explain why voters should trust their judgment when it came to foreign entanglements.

Gallup polls released in the days leading up to the debate showed 63 percent of US adults viewed Trump unfavorably. Clinton didn’t fare much better, with 55 percent of those polled feeling the same of her. Additionally, neither Trump nor Clinton broke 35 percent when Americans were asked whether they viewed the candidates as honest and trustworthy.

With two debates still to go, questions about issues like gun control, education, economic policies, and a host of other concerns will likely lower the overall focus on personal qualities. But the fact Holt chose to home in on this topic during the first event when Trump and Clinton shared a stage tells us that character matters, perhaps in this election more than any other.

Given the questions surrounding issues like the candidates’ charitable foundations–neither of which were mentioned on Monday–viewers should expect to see both Trump and Clinton challenged again to defend their character at each of the upcoming debates.

Here are some other observations from our analysis of more than a half-century of presidential debates:

On race, the song remains the same

Hours before Clinton and Trump took to the debate stage on Monday, the mayor of Charlotte declared an end to a curfew imposed over the weekend in response to protests over the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott.

Holt addressed the situation in one of his questions, saying, “The share of Americans who say race relations are bad in this country is the highest it’s been in decades, much of it amplified by shootings of African-Americans by police, as we’ve seen recently in Charlotte and Tulsa. Race has been a big issue in this campaign, and one of you is going to have to bridge a very wide and bitter gap. So how do you heal the divide?”

Since the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin touched off a wave of protests, the discussion of race relations has been a vital part of political discourse. But questions about race and the civil rights of minorities have been a feature of presidential debates for decades. A look at the questions candidates have faced reveals a country still struggling with issues that have long plagued us.

In the section below, we’ve chosen five questions from presidential debates since 1960. See if you can match the questions with the years they were asked. (See an answer key below.)

Years: 1976, 1980, 1992, 2000, 2016

  1. Would you support or sign, as president, a federal law banning racial profiling by police and other authorities at all levels of government?
  2. Racial division continues to tear apart our great cities….Why is this still happening in America, and what would you do to end it?
  3. There is racial confrontation in the schools, on jobs, and in housing, as [minorities] seek to reap the benefits of a free society. What do you think is the nation’s future as a multiracial society?
  4. Last week, you said we’ve got to do everything possible to improve policing, to go right at implicit bias. Do you believe that police are implicitly biased against black people?
  5. Now, civil rights groups have complained repeatedly that there’s been lack of progress and commitment to an integrated society during your administration. So how are you getting the job done for blacks and other minorities and what programs do you have in mind for the next four years?

Major topics MIA

Over the years there have been a number of critical topics that received little attention from debate moderators. Equal pay for men and women was the subject of a question only once, in 2012, but it has been an issue even before 1963, when John F. Kennedy signed into law the Equal Pay Act. In a related matter, minimum wage–a hot button issue often mentioned by candidates while campaigning–was brought up only once in a moderator’s question, in 2004.

Gun control and immigration are two other subjects that make surprisingly few appearances. Questions about immigration were asked in 1984, 2004, and 2012. As for gun control, it isn’t an infrequent topic of debate questions but is far outnumbered by other topics. Questions on gun control have come up 11 times, while there have been more than 70 questions on personal characteristics.

Questions about hot-button social issues, including abortion and gay marriage, seem to correlate with specific moments in history. Questions on abortion were first asked in the ‘80s when President Ronald Reagan advocated for pro-life positions, and there were fierce debates about overturning the landmark Roe v. Wade decision. None of the above topics was directly mentioned in questions from Monday Trump v. Clinton throwdown.

Do some countries matter more than others?

Foreign policy questions, especially as they relate to military involvement and national security, make consistent appearances in presidential debates. More rare, however, are inquiries about specific nations. When individual countries are mentioned, perhaps not surprisingly, the focus has been on a select few.

On Monday, Lester Holt chose not to ask the candidates about US involvement in any specific country, though he did ask an open-ended question about who might be behind the cyber attacks the US has suffered. Holt also mentioned Iraq in the context of Trump’s early support for the 2003 invasion, but the purpose of the question was to compare the candidates’ judgment.

Our analysis counted questions with a main thrust focused on US relations with or intervention in a specific country. Unsurprisingly, the USSR/Russia has received by far the most attention from debate moderators, panelists, and audience questioners over the years.

None of this is particularly surprising given where American strategic interests have ranged over the past four decades. What is striking, however, is just how little interest the rest of the world receives.

Watching 40 years of US presidential debates, one could be forgiven for imagining that Africa, most of Latin America, and even much of Europe are of little importance to the American electorate. (The map below shows which countries have been mentioned in debate questions, weighted by how often they were mentioned.)


*The analysis does not include the 1980 John Anderson-Ronald Reagan debate in which then-President Jimmy Carter declined to participate.

Answer key: 1. 2000, 2. 1992, 3. 1980, 4. 2016, 5. 1976


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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: Moderator Lester Holt sits during the first US presidential debate of 2016 at Hofstra University in Hempstead