Chris Wallace steers debate focus from personal attacks to policy

Hillary Clinton shakes hands with Fox News anchor and moderator Chris Wallace as Donald Trump (R) looks on after the third U.S. presidential debate on October 19

For a debate cycle that has prized personal characteristics over policy positions, last night’s final meeting between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump presented a striking contrast to the mudslinging attacks of previous showdowns.

Though Trump mentioned “bad hombres” and referred to Clinton as “a nasty woman,” moderator Chris Wallace kept the candidates focused on the issues a future president will face.

While the big headline from last night was Trump’s refusal to endorse the peaceful transfer of power in the event he loses, Wallace’s performance–a relief to those who have clamored for a more issue-oriented campaign–deserves attention. Heading into last night, we noted that the first two debates had produced questions on only 11 distinct topics. Wallace managed to more than match that number, resulting in a debate season that falls in line with historical precedent in terms of issues questioned. 

The graphs below show the proportion of topics covered in each of 2016’s debates:

In choosing to hold his questions on recent controversies until later in the night, Wallace led a discussion that was, at least initially, grounded in policy. He used the Supreme Court topic to ask focused questions about the candidates’ positions on abortion and the second amendment. He touched on Russia, Iraq, and Syria, while also pressing Clinton on her threshold for military intervention. Though the debate eventually devolved into personal attacks, the overarching result was a contest more focused on the issues than either of its predecessors. Coming into the debate, a Gallup poll showed that 59 percent of voters felt Clinton had a good understanding of issues while only 28 percent thought Trump did. 

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As the first moderator from Fox News, Wallace bolstered the network’s image in what has been a tumultuous year, proving that there exists a vision of a post-Ailes Fox News, led by journalists like Wallace and Shepard Smith, and commentators like Megyn Kelly, that lands somewhere right-of-center, but still within the mainstream of modern American politics.

Having analyzed 577 questions asked in presidential debates since 1960, here are some final observations on the 2016 cycle:

Comparing the debates

Given the record-low popularity of the two major-party candidates in 2016, a concentration on character was inevitable. The rapid-fire revelations of Trump’s treatment of women and the Wikileaks email dump only fed that focus. The first two debates had a much heavier focus on personal characteristics than in the past, which left little time to cover other topics. In our last analysis, we noted that, historically speaking, this year’s presidential debates were far behind average in the number of issues covered. Wallace made up for lost ground last night by covering 12 topics.

While the candidates continued to be challenged on their respective characters, Wallace balanced those with questions on the economy, the constitution, and foreign hot spots. Over the course of three debates, questions about personal characteristics still outweighed those on other issues, but Wallace managed to bring the total proportion closer to historical norms.

Melding topics to cover more issues

When Wallace presented his six chosen topics, it appeared that many issues were going to be completely shut out of this year’s debates. By embracing the 10-minute discussion period following each of his initial questions, however, the moderator managed to force the candidates to address their positions on a variety of subjects.

In the first discussion portion, ostensibly concerning future Supreme Court nominations, Wallace pivoted to Roe v. Wade:

Let’s pick up on another issue which divides you, and the justices that, whoever ends up winning this election appoints, could have a dramatic effect there. That’s the issue of abortion. Mr. Trump, you’re pro-life. And I want to ask you specifically: Do you want the court, including the justices that you will name, to overturn Roe v. Wade, which includes, in fact, states a woman’s right to abortion.

Later in the evening, a question about immigration led to Trump and Clinton arguing over whose puppet strings Vladimir Putin was pulling. Instead of drawing a hard line around his proposed topic, Wallace steered into the skid, regaining control of the floor and asking Trump:

I do get to ask some questions. And I would like to ask you this direct question. The top national security officials of this country do believe that Russia has been behind these hacks. Even if you don’t know for sure whether they are, do you condemn any interference by Russia in the American election?

In the evening’s final minutes, Wallace added an unannounced lightning round to the debate, something neither candidate had agreed to, but a prompt that attempted to bring some measure of closure to the proceedings:

This is a final time, probably to both of your delight, that you’re going to be on the stage together in this campaign. I would like to end it on a positive note. You had not agreed to closing statements, but it seems to me in a funny way that might make it more interesting because you haven’t prepared closing statements. So I would like for each of you to take — and we’re going to put a clock up — a minute as the final question, in the final debate, to tell the American people why they should elect you to be the next president.

Major issues still missing

Over the course of the three debates, moderator questions touched on a total of 23 topics. Much of the credit for that number goes to Wallace, but there still are a number of important issues that did not make it into the questions asked on this year’s national stage.

One of those topics was education. Both candidates mentioned the issue in passing during a couple of their answers, but it never came up as a direct question during any of the three debates. Other issues missed included LGBTQ rights, climate change, minimum wage, and equal pay. While the first two got no mention whatsoever, equal pay did come up when Clinton shifted to regular talking points in her response to creating jobs.

With less than three weeks until Election Day, it’s unlikely that last night’s event will have a determinative effect on what appears to be a solid lead in the polls for Clinton. When those who watched the third debate enter the ballot box, however, they will have a better understanding of the candidates’ positions on the issues than they did on Wednesday afternoon. For that, Chris Wallace deserves our praise. 

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Carlett Spike and Pete Vernon are CJR Delacorte Fellows.