Round Up: Debate Polls, Podiums and Prep

Trump says he'll show up at the debates (probably), the problem with high-profile moderators, and a look at civic engagement tactics around the country driving debate participation.


Promo for presidential debate at Hofstra Sept. 6

This Week in Debates

Just before the public’s interest in the presidential election was put on hold for Labor Day weekend, the Commission on Presidential Debates announced this year’s debate moderators, putting an end to speculation over how far the Commission would go to avoid upsetting the candidates.

NBC’s Lester Holt and Fox News’s Chris Wallace will moderate the first (Sept. 26) and third (Oct. 19) presidential debates, respectively, while CNN’s Anderson Cooper and ABC’s Martha Raddatz will team up for the second debate (Oct. 9), a town hall format. CBSN anchor Elaine Quijano will moderate the only vice-presidential debate (Oct. 4). She is the first host of a digital streaming network to be selected.

We’re still waiting to hear if the Commission will announce any new initiatives—via social media or other platforms—to increase civic engagement before and during the debates.

Prior to the announcement, Josh Marshall, had worried that the Commission was trying too hard to find a moderator who Donald Trump wouldn’t accuse of being biased against him. (Sad!)

Trump signaled approval on Monday during a Q&A with reporters. “I like them. I respect the moderators. I do respect them. It’s interesting,” he said, adding that he will attend the debates, barring “hurricanes, natural disasters.”

“No, I expect to do all 3 of the debates. I look forward to the debates,” Trump said. “I think it’s an important element of what we’re doing. I think you have an obligation to the debates. I did them in the other cases.”

Also prior to the announcement, Joe Concha, The Hill’s media reporter, took a closer look at how the Commission on Presidential Debates selects the moderators. One of the criteria is extensive experience as a television broadcaster, which some see as a negative.   
 
“Political debates need to get away from using high profile broadcasters as debate moderators,” said Jeffrey McCall, a professor of media studies at DePauw University. “Certainly, the candidates this year will have enough notoriety on their own without injecting other big name personalities who will want their share of the limelight.”

He wasn’t the only one with concerns. “The Annenberg Debate Reform Working Group, a bipartisan group of top officials from past presidential campaigns that has looked into the debates, found that high-profile moderators play more to the business side of journalism,” writes Concha.

From the Annenberg report: “When a network uses a debate as an opportunity to showcase its broadcasting talent and enhance its brand, the somewhat arbitrary selection of moderators from a maximum of four networks in a world now populated by many more than that creates a competitive advantage for the selected outlet. One result of all of this is that the debates can take on the appearance of marketing opportunities for the network whose reporter or anchor is moderating.”

Debating Debate Decorum: It seems every political analyst has weighed in on the debate prep styles of Trump and Clinton, and the potential clash of styles at the debates themselves.
  
Moderators? Who Needs Moderators?: Adam Chiara, an assistant professor of communication at the University of Hartford, predicts it won’t be long before politicians communicate directly with each other and the public using platforms such as Facebook Live to reach voters.
 
“With future candidates who might embrace the chance for long-form, rich debates, doing it on social media will just makes sense. And for audiences who are already on there as part of their daily routine, it will make sense to them, too,” he writes.
 
More Podiums, Please: In this unusual election year, should third-party candidates Gary Johnson and Jill Stein be allowed to take part in the presidential debates, even if they don’t meet the 15-percent polling average required to be on stage? That’s the question Nora Kelly dives into over at The Atlantic.
 
“When voters head to the polls in November, most will see Johnson’s and Stein’s names listed on their ballots. They can’t—and shouldn’t have to—hear from every candidate running for president; hundreds of varying degrees of seriousness have filed this cycle,” writes Kelly. “But when an election creates exceptions to every campaign rule, it may be worth reviewing whether debates should have exceptions, too.”
 
Plus: The Boston Herald and Chicago Tribune editorial boards joined the bandwagon arguing for including Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson in the first presidential debate. The Richmond Times-Dispatch went a step further this weekend and endorsed Johnson.
 
Speaking of Thresholds: Vox has an article by two political scientists who consider how the thresholds for inclusion in the Republican primary debates assisted Trump. Seth Masket and Julia Azari write:
 
“By requiring candidates to poll about 3 percent for the main debates and about 1 for the ‘undercard’ early debates, the unexpected frontrunner faced a crowded field of contenders for the ‘establishment lane.’ We can’t know for sure, but had the thresholds been just slightly higher—say, 5 percent in September—Trump would have faced fewer opponents. And maybe one of the mainstream candidates—perhaps John Kasich, who often performed well in debates—would have made a stronger showing.”

Masket and Azari look at how the major political parties have asserted control over the primary debates in a paper they presented last week at the American Political Science Association annual conference.
 
Coming Soon to a Public Radio Station Near You: Political Junkie Ken Rudin reviews great moments from past presidential debates, with commentary from journalists and historians on how those moments may have helped pave the way for the winner to reach the White House. The one-hour special will air on some stations between Sept. 16 and Oct. 18. Podcast subscribers can download the episode starting Thursday, Sept. 15.
 
Got a Question for the Commission? The public is invited to a conversation on Election 2016 between Mike McCurry, co-chair of the Commission, and Purdue University President Mitch Daniels, one of its members, on Sept. 7 in Washington, D.C. Tickets are $20.


State Debates

State Spotlight: Indiana

A voter asks a question at a U.S. Senate debate in 2012.

A voter asks a question at a U.S. Senate debate sponsored by the Indiana Debate Commission in 2012.

The Indiana Debate Commission, a nonprofit, independent group that has organized state-level debates since its founding in 2007, is putting together three debates for the candidates for governor: Republican Eric Holcomb, Democrat John Gregg, and Libertarian Rex Bell.
 
The first debate on Sept. 27 will take place at Lawrence North High School in Indianapolis, with some questions posed by students. Moderated by University of Indianapolis political science professor Laura Merrifield Albright, the debate will be webcast to schools across the state. The livestream will be available to news organizations and the video will be made available for later television broadcasting.
 
Other groups involved in the student debate include the Indiana State Bar Association, the Indiana Secretary of State, and the Indiana Department of Education, which sponsors Indiana Kids’ Election, a program that helps to educate students about the electoral process.
 
“Being involved in an event such as this is a new experience for the Debate Commission,” said Dan Byron, the commission’s president. “We’re excited to be part of an event that helps young people better understand our democratic system of electing our top officials in government, and we are pleased that the three candidates also recognize this opportunity.”
 
For the other two debates, members of the public can submit questions for candidates through the Indiana Debate Commission’s website.  
 
Colorado: Club 20, a Grand Junction-based nonprofit organization that sponsors political debates, has decided not to include the Libertarian Party’s nominee, Lily Tang Williams, in a U.S. Senate debate on Sept. 10, reports the Colorado Independent. The Libertarian Party membership in the state falls just shy of 1 percent of registered voters—the threshold for inclusion. The group is hosting a series of debates for U.S. House and Senate candidates in September during its annual fall conference. UPDATE: Club 20 has now reversed its position and invited Williams to take part. New numbers released Sept. 6 put the number of registered Libertarian Party voters at just over 1 percent.
 
Delaware: The Center for Political Communication at University of Delaware is hosting a debate with major candidates for Delaware’s lone U.S. House seat and candidates for governor on Oct. 19. Students are invited to submit questions for the candidates using this Google form. The moderators are from Delaware Public Media and the University of Delaware.
 
Florida: After Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Patrick Murphy won their primaries last week, Rubio challenged Murphy to “six media-sponsored live debates between now and Election Day.” Murphy’s counter-challenge: “Sen, Rubio, commit to serving a six-year term.”

The dust has settled, and Leadership Florida and the Florida Press Association announced that both candidates have agreed to an hour-long debate on Oct. 26 at Broward College in Fort Lauderdale.

“The outcome of Florida’s Senate race literally could affect the future direction of the country, and 13 days before Election Day we know the eyes of the state and the nation will be on this debate,” said Wendy Walker, president of Leadership Florida. “We are pleased that both major parties’ nominees have committed so quickly to participate.”

The debate will air on around a dozen TV stations and simulcast on Florida Public Radio member stations. Neither candidate debated his primary opponents.
 
Georgia: The Atlanta Press Club will host a debate on Oct. 21 between Republican U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson and his two challengers, Democrat Jim Barksdale and Libertarian Allen Buckley. Both challengers are seeking more debate opportunities to make their viewpoints heard. The debate will air on Georgia Public Broadcasting on Oct. 23—six days after early voting begins.

Indiana: A number of groups are lined up to host debates between congressional candidates in the state’s 2nd District, but so far incumbent Republican Rep. Jacki Walorski, whose seat is considered safe, hasn’t agreed to a debate with her challenger, Democrat Lynn Coleman, a former South Bend police officer.

“Coleman has already accepted invitations for two debates that have traditionally been staples of north-central Indiana’s congressional races,” writes the South Bend Tribune’s Kevin Allen.

“One of those would be broadcast on WNIT Television and organized by the American Democracy Project and Political Science Club at Indiana University South Bend and the League of Women Voters of the South Bend Area. The other debate would be held at Rochester Community High School and organized by The Rochester Sentinel and the school’s advanced-placement government class.”

Who disappoints civic-minded high school students?
 
New Hampshire: WMUR and the New Hampshire Union Leader are teaming up to host the Granite State Debates, a series of televised debates that will also be streamed live online. Republican gubernatorial candidates will debate tonight at 7 p.m., followed by the Democrats at 8 p.m. Republican candidates for Senate will meet on Sept. 7. The primary is Sept. 13.
 
New Jersey: “Rep. Scott Garrett and Democratic challenger Josh Gottheimer both have agreed to show up at debates this fall. Just not the same ones,” writes Jonathan D. Salant at NJ.com.
 
Garrett has agreed to debate invitations from WRNJ Radio and Steven Pruzansky, rabbi of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun, an Orthodox synagogue in Teaneck, while Gottheimer said yes to the League of Women Voters, Fairleigh Dickinson University, and the Fair Lawn Jewish Center. The 5th Congressional District race is New Jersey’s only competitive House race and may end up being one of the most expensive in the country.

Promo for Faso, Teachout WAMC debate
 New York: Candidates in the 19th Congressional District, one of the most closely watched elections, will take part in three debates. Republican John Faso and Democrat Zephyr Teachout will first meet on Sept. 15 at a debate in Albany hosted by WAMC/Northeast Public Radio that will be broadcast on radio and at wamc.org. A televised debate hosted by WMHT television is scheduled for Oct. 13. It will also be streamed at wmht.org and timesunion.com. The final match-up on Oct. 24 will be hosted by Time Warner Cable News.
 
In the 24th Congressional District, U.S. Rep. John Katko and his challenger, Democrat Colleen Deacon, have agreed to take part in three televised debates on broadcast and cable TV and two other joint appearances.

North Carolina: Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and Attorney General Roy Cooper, the Democrat looking to unseat him, will meet up on Oct. 11 for a televised debate moderated by NBC’s Chuck Todd (yes, the race is that high-profile). The debate will be hosted by the N.C. Association of Broadcasters Educational Foundation and will be carried on about 30 TV stations as well as statewide radio.

Ohio: Republican U.S. Sen. Rob Portman and the Democratic challenger, former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, have agreed to three one-hour debates in October in Youngstown, Columbus, and Cleveland.
 
The third debate, on Oct. 20, will be sponsored in part by the City Club of Cleveland, which is contemplating ending its practice of hosting U.S. House debates this year because the majority of the districts are not considered competitive races. The GOP is heavily favored in most districts, thanks to a Republican-led redistricting process five years ago that resulted in a bevy of safe seats, writes Henry Gomez at Cleveland.com.

“Our mission is about supporting democracy,” said Dan Moulthrop, the City Club’s chief executive officer. “Our goal is to provide forums that will be productive and useful to voters, to the community, and to the campaigns in their effort to connect with voters. If we can’t do that, we’re not going to do that.”
 
Oregon: Mike McInally, editor of the Albany Democrat-Herald and Corvallis Gazette-Times, suggests questions (some tongue-in-cheek) the public should ask at debates involving Gov. Kate Brown and her Republican opponent, Bud Pierce. The two candidates have so far agreed to five debates.
 
South Carolina: South Carolina’s public broadcasting network, SCETV, has decided it won’t be televising any debates, in part because of the lack of “highly competitive” general election races.
 
The decision was made after receiving a request to televise a debate between U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, a Republican, and his Democratic opponent, Arik Bjorn, a librarian. Bjorn said he’s confident “another media outlet will come forward.”

Utah: The Utah Debate Commission has scheduled debates for several state-wide races, including attorney general, governor, and U.S. Senate, and four congressional races. The Commission, which formed in 2014 to ensure election debates are held and works with educational partners and media outlets to determine dates and venues, is encouraging the public to submit questions for candidates via its website; it will invite people whose questions are selected to attend the debates, with the possibility of asking their question in person.
 
Vermont: “Although candidates have the right to try and gain an advantage through the manipulation of the debate format, it is the right of sponsors of these debates, indeed, their obligation, especially media sponsors, to reject rules that give a particular candidate an advantage or limit the public’s full understanding of the capabilities of a candidate,” argues political analyst Mike Smith, in this look at the Vermont gubernatorial debates and the inclusion of third-party candidates.

In a subsequent column, Smith sharply criticizes Sen. Patrick Leahy for “insisting on only three debates with [Republican Scott] Milne and none of the debates will be on the state’s major commercial television stations.”
 
West Virginia: Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jim Justice has agreed to two debates with his Republican opponent, Bill Cole. The two will face off Oct. 4 and Oct. 11 in Charleston; the West Virginia Press Association will sponsor the first the debate, and the West Virginia Broadcasters Association the second. Cole had pushed for seven debates across the state.

Labor groups want to organize their own debate. “We don’t disrespect people in the media who are going to be asking questions but they’re not necessarily going to be asking questions that our members feel are important,” UMWA spokesman Phil Smith told MetroNews. Seeing as how the UMWA has already endorsed Justice, Cole’s spokesperson said the candidate isn’t interested.