Can You Hear Us Now? Getting the Public’s Questions into the Last Presidential Debate
The Commission on Presidential Debates identified numerous ways to engage the public this election cycle. Will the last presidential debate finally include a question up-voted by the people?
The Open Debate Coalition last week launched a petition urging Fox News’ Mike Wallace, who is moderating the third and final presidential debate this Wednesday at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, to ask questions the public wants answered.
More than 15,800 questions have already been submitted and close to 3.7 million votes have been logged at PresidentialOpenQuestions.com. CNN’s Anderson Cooper and ABC’s Martha Raddatz, moderators of the Oct. 9 town hall debate, had agreed to consider the top 30 questions. They ended up selecting a single question to ask, but in a surprising twist, they chose one from the bottom of the pile.
In doing so, they overlooked top-rated questions that had received at least 20,000 votes (and some with many more) on the 2nd Amendment, climate change, transparency and accountability in government, food insecurity, and Alzheimer’s disease—among other popular topics that have yet to come up for discussion.
The platform was developed by the Open Debate Coalition, a nonpartisan organization that has the support of numerous activist and civic groups across the political spectrum. Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, and Grover Norquist, founder and president of Americans for Tax Reform, paid Wallace a visit last week to see if the questions might be considered one more time.
Including Online Audience in Audience Questions
Back in July, when the Commission on Presidential Debates released the debate formats, it announced an update to the town hall set-up: In addition to uncommitted voters attending in person and posing questions directly to the candidates, the moderators would ask questions “based on topics of broad public interest as reflected in social media and other sources.”
The wording was vague, but the CPD promised more to come.
Sure enough, in September, the CPD released two more statements on social media initiatives. The first noted that Facebook and Google would provide data to the moderators on what the public was searching and discussing online about the candidates and election issues, and for the town hall debate, Facebook would also help source questions—none of which the moderators had to use, but still. The second statement spotlighted Twitter’s involvement, noting the company would also curate questions for moderators on issues related to the debate topics.
None of this was new to anyone who had watched at least one primary debate. Social media and tech companies were frequently partnering with news networks, providing little more than a sheen of newness to a familiar forum. The questions sourced from the public mostly amplified the moderators’ agenda and, with few exceptions, rarely created news.
The possibility that the CPD was thinking bigger was underscored by the variety of ways it was seeking to support efforts that engaged the public—from WatchTheDebates.org, a PBS NewsHour collaboration with Microsoft that allows users to view every presidential debate and track specific issues, to endorsing Snapchat Live stories from the debates.
The CPD also partnered with Dominican University of California on College Debate 2016, a voter-education project designed to encourage civic engagement among college students. More than 100 college students from across the country spent several days in June and again in September at the Dominican University campus in San Rafael, discussing key political issues important to millennials and voting on a final list of six questions for the presidential candidates. Local news media have been profiling students who took part. So far, none of their questions have been asked.
It wasn’t until the day after the first presidential debate in late September, however, that an even more profound format change was confirmed—one that the CPD was not directly involved in but tacitly approved: Cooper and Raddatz agreed to consider the most popular questions from PresidentialOpenQuestions.com. As with Facebook and other social media, there was no guarantee any of the questions would be asked, but the moderators’ interest in the crowdsourced site was taken as a positive sign.
The Open Debate Coalition had already sponsored a well-received U.S. Senate primary debate in Florida this year. Moderators only asked questions that came from public submissions, thus giving the public more control over the overall agenda. The questions tackled serious policy issues, and the CPD took notice.
“[W]e were impressed with the results,” Mike McCurry, co-chair of the Commission on Presidential Debates, said in a statement. “This year’s presidential debate moderators will have a rich pool of voter-submitted questions they can draw on that carry greater weight because they are backed by votes from the American people.”
In the week leading up to the town hall debate, thousands of questions poured in. Similar queries were merged via a transparent process that gives users the opportunity to contest the merger. Groups on both the left and the right were encouraged to drum up support for specific issues using their email lists and social media.
“Would you support requiring criminal background checks for all gun sales?” was the number one submission, with more than 75,000 votes. It came from Richard M. in California, whose son had been murdered. Coming in second was a counterpoint: “How will you ensure the 2nd amendment is protected?”
Joseph from D.C. wanted to know, “What are three things you will do as president to address the challenges posed by a warming planet?” So did more than 46,000 other voters.
Six-year-old Sophie personalized a divisive issue: “If you deport my parents, what happens to me?”
It’s the kind of question that can effectively cut through political rhetoric, similar to the question asked by audience member Gorba Hameed during the town hall debate: “There are 3.3 million Muslims in the United States and I’m one of them. You’ve mentioned working with Muslim nations but with Islamophobia on the rise, how will you help people like me deal with the consequences of being labeled as a threat to the country after the election is over?”
Her question was one of the more thoughtful and coherent questions of the night—more useful than asking if someone can be a devoted president to everyone or to name something you respect about the other candidate.
The moment Open Debate Coalition supporters had hoped for occurred at 9:54 p.m., almost an hour into the 90-minute debate. “This next question,” said Raddatz, “comes from the public through the bipartisan Open Debate Coalition’s online form, where Americans submitted questions that generated millions of votes.”
“This question,” she continued, “involves Wikileaks release of reported excerpts” of Clinton’s paid speeches, “and one line in particular in which you, Secretary Clinton, reportedly say you need both a public and private position on certain issues. So Tu E. from Virginia asks, ‘Is it okay for politicians to be two-faced? Is it acceptable for a politician to have a private stance on issues?’ Secretary Clinton, your two minutes.”
That question, which was submitted late Friday night, less than 48 hours before the debate, hadn’t picked up any traction: It had 13 votes. Not only had the moderators ignored the agreement to focus on the most popular questions, they also ignored the platform’s submission guidelines: Questions must not mention or allude to a candidate and must be able to be posed to either candidate. Raddatz gave Donald Trump time to respond to Clinton, but he wasn’t pressed to answer the same question.
The moment was bittersweet—and likely a bit maddening. For the first time ever on a presidential debate stage, the public had direct involvement in determining a question. The Open Debate Coalition platform was treated as a respected resource for democratic participation in front of an audience of 66 million viewers. Lilia Tamm Dixon, director of the Open Debate Coalition, called the moment “a new high watermark for legitimizing the idea that regular people across the political spectrum come together to assert the public’s voice in political debates.”
A cherry-picked question that ignored the will of the platform’s participants undermined that accomplishment; Raddatz simply chose a question that filled a news hole.
Wallace recently identified the six topics he plans on focusing on during the final debate: debt and entitlements, immigration, the economy, the Supreme Court, international hot spots, and fitness to be president. Each segment will receive 15 minutes.
Many of the top of questions from PresidentialOpenQuestions.com would fit within those categories. The big question now is whether any of them will be asked.
New Hampshire Takes Up Voter Questions
The Open Debate Coalition is having better luck with state races. The Coalition last week announced a partnership with NH1 News Network to host two debates in New Hampshire this month: a gubernatorial debate on Oct. 26 with Republican candidate Chris Sununu and Democrat Colin Van Ostern, both members of the N.H. Executive Council, and a U.S. Senate debate on Oct. 27 between the incumbent, Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte, and Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan.
“Voters want to hear the answers to their questions, not the answers to canned questions from the media,” said Robb Atkinson, senior vice president of NH1.
The debates will be hosted and broadcast by NH1 and broadcast nationally by C-SPAN. Half of each 60-minute debate will be devoted to questions the moderators select from the 30 most popular vote-getters for each race at OpenDebateQuestions.com, a platform configured specifically for the New Hampshire debates. Anyone can submit and vote on questions, but only New Hampshire residents’ votes will be counted toward the final selection.
“As we work to usher in a new era where debate questions truly represent the will of the people, the American people deserve to see a pure version of a bottom-up Open Debate,” said Dixon. “This will be the first Open Debate for governor and second for U.S. Senate, and we hope these New Hampshire debates will be a model for presidential debates in years to come.”
Norquist added: “I think the New Hampshire vote is very important because the more people have seen this done, the more structures and institutions—right, left, center—will drive more people to recommend questions and vote on questions. And as those numbers grow, I think the intensity and the quality and the interest of questions by the American people will grow so that it can’t be ignored by the major companies that do the media.”