At Tuesday’s debate, Hillary Clinton unleashed the canned complaint of the week:
Well, can I just point out that in the last several debates, I seem to get the first question all the time. And I don’t mind. I—you know, I’ll be happy to field them, but I do find it curious, and if anybody saw Saturday Night Live , you know, maybe we should ask Barack if he’s comfortable and needs another pillow.
As Slate has discussed in various forums , this quote is very curious, to say the least. First of all, answering a question first isn’t a disadvantage. You get to set the tone of the debate with your response and get to look like the smartest guy/gal in the room. Especially in the primaries, if you cover all the bases, your opponent is forced to mimic your every word and concede that you’re right on the key points of the issue. First impressions matter.
So by no means do we buy Hillary’s grievance that answering first is a problem. What we do buy partly, though, is that at the previous debate in Texas, she had to answer a disproportionate number of questions first.
Crunching the numbers using the New York Times’ masterful debate analyzer , we’ve discovered a curious stat. At CNN’s Campbell Brown-moderated debate in the Lone Star State, Clinton answered first 11 times, compare with four first responses from Obama. (The number is complicated partly because some questions were posed only for Clinton, some were directed at Clinton first, and some Clinton volunteered to answer first.) But still, 73 percent of the time, Clinton was the first to respond.
But that was the only debate where such disparities were in play. At the previous debate—a CNN affair in Los Angeles—Obama answered nine questions first, compared with Clinton’s seven. (Note that in Clinton’s original quote she said “in the last several debates.”) At the MSNBC debate this week, Clinton and Obama had almost an even split by the end of the night, although Clinton did answer the first two topics.
So, yes, Clinton was sort of right to point out that she was answering too many questions first. But we’re still not sure if that helps or hurts a candidate whose greatest strength used to be, and still is, her deft touch on the debate stage.