Analysing debate questions: is it time to rethink the town hall?

Moderators Anderson Cooper of CNN and Martha Raddatz of ABC News spent the second presidential debate wrestling gamely with the candidates and a vociferous audience for control of the evening, leaving the undecided voters on the stage largely redundant. 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.” 

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. However, 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 an average five fewer audience questions. The goal was to foster a more sustained discussion, but with moderators taking a more active role, the audience becomes ancillary to the proceedings.

The power transfer, from audience to moderators, was particularly acute during the second presidential debate, with Cooper and Raddatz forcefully asserting themselves – and the audience fading into the background. That 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. When the moderators did turn to the voters, those questions largely seemed lacking both in scope and substance. “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. However, viral sensation Ken Bone did ask insightfully and concisely about energy policy, and Gorbah Hamed forced Donald Trump to directly confront the Islamophobia in which his campaign has trafficked.

Topics missed

The town hall debate normally serves as an opportunity for citizens to address personal issues they are grappling with, but after two debates this cycle a number of topics remained unaddressed. Equal pay and the minimum wage, for example, were not mentioned in either of the first two presidential debates. 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 – despite 55% of Americans favouring stricter gun laws, according to a CNN/ORC poll. In the Twittersphere, many people were upset that no questions about policing surfaced during this debate. 

Personal characteristics again in focus

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

The first two questions, along with several follow-ups from the moderators, focused on the candidates’ behaviour, 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.

A longer version of this article originally appeared in Columbia Journalism Review, reproduced with permission.