What’s the best way to effectively and efficiently moderate a two-hour debate between 10 eager, thirsty presidential candidates? After watching Wednesday night’s Democratic debate, I am pretty sure the answer is not having five separate moderators—especially not when one of those moderators is a logorrheic Chuck Todd.
The Meet the Press anchor was the clear loser at the first of the two debates this week, which is a bit of a shame because he was so evidently excited to be there. But excitement can easily transmute into disorder, and a stumbly, fumbly question-asker does a disservice to both the viewers at home and the candidates on stage. The moderator’s job, especially in crowded early-stage debates like this one, should be to help viewers differentiate between candidates, ideally by asking clear, pointed questions that force the presidential aspirants out of their stump speeches and pin them down on issues and priorities. But as FiveThirtyEight noted, Todd himself uttered the fourth-most words of anyone on the debate stage despite only being on camera for half of the event. That verbosity might not have been a problem if his questions had been great or even helpful ones. They largely weren’t.
Todd’s stumbles dampened what had been up until that point a relatively successful night for NBC, which had the unenviable task of imposing a semblance of journalistic order onto the evening’s inherently unruly premise. The network chose to do this by flooding the zone with moderators, with NBC’s Lester Holt and Savannah Guthrie and Telemundo’s José Diaz-Balart presiding over the first hour, and Todd and Rachel Maddow moderating the second. The contrast between the first team of moderators and the second was jarring.
The first hour actually went as well as an overstuffed primary debate could have. Guthrie led off with four pointed, specific questions directed to four of the most prominent Democrats in the field. I particularly liked her question to New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, in which Guthrie quoted Booker’s own words back to him about his apparent reluctance to break up certain big tech companies, and then followed up when she felt that Booker’s answer was insufficiently direct. Guthrie was efficient and clear throughout the evening, pushing the candidates to clarify and expand on their extant positions rather than just recite lines from stump speeches.
Holt and Diaz-Balart followed Guthrie with a round of brief, broad questions for the second-tier candidates, asking roughly similar questions to multiple candidates in succession. In practice, this was a skillful way of ensuring that the lower-polling candidates’ voices were heard while tacitly acknowledging that, at this point, their platforms do not merit the same levels of direct interrogation as those of their more popular competitors. While the pace of questions and answers sometimes felt frenzied during that first hour, I thought that the triad of moderators largely retained control, letting the candidates productively cross-talk at times—especially during a memorable exchange over immigration between Beto O’Rourke and Julian Castro—while remaining unafraid to step in and keep things moving when need be.
But things started to go wrong—literally, very wrong—from the moment that Todd and Maddow took over during the second hour. As Todd was directing his first question to Sen. Elizabeth Warren—who spoke only four more words than Todd over the course of the entire debate—he realized that the earlier moderators’ wireless microphones were still on, and that no one could figure out how to turn them off; their backstage banter was overlapping with Todd’s efforts to ask Warren about gun control. “You know, we prepared for everything. We did not prepare for this,” Maddow quipped, and then they cut to a rather long commercial break to get the technical issue sorted out.
It was a harbinger of things to come. The second hour was always going to be the more difficult hour to moderate. During any debate, as the clock counts down, the marginal candidates become more and more desperate to have their moments, and become less respectful of both the format and their fellow candidates. Neither Maddow nor Todd could maintain a grip on the proceedings. As soon-to-be also-rans like John Delaney and Bill de Blasio rushed to interject at every possible opportunity, viable candidates like Warren were effectively sidelined. Holt and Guthrie would have done a better job directing the traffic.
Both Todd and Maddow were fixated on getting candidates to explain how, exactly, they would advance their agendas in a Mitch McConnell–controlled Senate. At one point, Maddow asked three separate candidates about whether they believed that McConnell would allow a Republican Senate to confirm a Democratic president’s judicial nominees. “Do you have a plan to deal with Mitch McConnell?” Maddow asked Warren. (“I do,” said Warren. Well, what else was she going to say? That she doesn’t have a plan?) Todd, for his part, was very eager to get the candidates to assess their own electability. “What’s your message to a voter who supports the overall goal of what you’re trying to do but suddenly feels as if government is telling them how to live and ordering them how to live? What is that balance like?” he asked O’Rourke at the end of a question that was purportedly about climate change.
But the point of a debate shouldn’t be to pin down candidates on their strategies for winning over skeptical voters. The point, at least at this very early stage in the campaign, should be to pin them down on their policies, temperaments, and ideas, and let skeptical voters make up their own minds. When too much focus is placed on getting the candidates to address their campaigns instead of their platforms, the debating process becomes an empty tautology—“Why should voters elect you?” “Because I’m electable.” “Why should we trust that you’ll be effective?” “Because, trust me, I’m effective.”—rather than an opportunity to emphasize points and issues that the candidates would rather elide in their ongoing efforts to craft their own narratives.
That said, Todd didn’t fare much better when he did try to stick to the issues. The evening’s nadir came when he asked an incoherent “lightning round”–style question about geopolitics that is worth quoting in full:
TODD: I want to go down … I want to go down the line here, finish up foreign policy, it’s a simple question, what is our, what is the biggest threat to, what is, who is the geopolitical threat to the United States? Just give me a one-word answer, congressman Delaney?
DELANEY: Could you repeat the question?
Todd finally got the question out, and each candidate gave a relatively brief, stump-speechy answer, to Todd’s delight.
Compare this approach to the first half of Wednesday’s proceedings. Twice, Holt asked the field of candidates to raise their hands in response to general questions—one about health insurance and one about the 2015 Iran deal—only to then follow up with more specific questions based on the group’s general answers; Todd never made that key pivot. Guthrie’s opening questions were also a “lightning round” of sorts. But Guthrie was trying to elicit specificity—and got it—while Todd was trying to get the candidates to feign certainty. The former is helpful, while the latter is maddening.
Todd didn’t notice. “This is the best part of a debate like this,” he cheered at the end of the “geopolitical threat” sequence. It was assuredly the worst part of the debate. Questions like that one almost never elicit anything other than sound bites, and political campaigns are already comprised of enough sound bites as is. The fact that the anchor could not tell the difference between a productive question and a useless one does not augur well for Thursday night’s sequel.