How are moderators picked for presidential debates? It’s really pretty simple
The presidential debates are like a three-ring circus without all the good snacks, and it takes a lot to organize one. At least this is what the Commission for Presidential Debates (CPD), the non-profit controlled by the Democratic and Republican parties that runs these things, would like us all to believe. Despite what many voters might think, the campaigns actually have no say as to how moderators are picked for the presidential debates. The CPD goes for experience, and it’s not just about who will rattle Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump all night. At this point, it’s pretty obvious that the candidates can do that all by themselves.
This year, NBC’s Lester Holt will moderate the first debate, CNN’s Anderson Cooper and ABC’s Martha Raddatz will co-moderate the second one (which will be a town hall format), and Fox’s Chris Wallace will moderate the last debate. The only vice-presidential debate will be moderated by CBS’s Elaine Quijano.
The CPD writes on its website that it uses three criteria when choosing moderators for the debates. First, it looks for familiarity with the candidates and the major issues. Then, the moderators have to have extensive live broadcasting experience, and the moderators have to understand that it’s about maximizing time and letting the candidates share their views. It’s not about the moderator.
The CPD writes that the moderators do not meet with campaigns and are allowed to choose the topics and the questions. That’s why, despite the commission’s best efforts, all eyes really are on the moderator, how they control the candidates, what kind of tough questions they ask, and how much they follow up. It’s just how things work.
There has been a lot of discussion around whether the debates even need a moderator this year — Trump suggested that the two candidates go at it with just a timekeeper of sorts to direct the flow of conversation, and the CPD seems to agree. Janet Brown, the executive director of the CPD, said on CNN that it’s not the moderator’s job to “fact check.” But, since the moderators are all journalists, that’s actually their job, all the time. It’s kind of like saying that if a doctor is off-duty and someone starts choking in a restaurant, they shouldn’t give a proper Heimlich and just let the busboy do it. That’s ridiculous.
Trump’s campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, said on ABC News over the weekend, “I really don’t appreciate the campaigns thinking it is the job of the media to go and be these virtual fact-checkers.” But it is possible for moderators to not be in the pockets of the campaigns and do their journalistic duty if a candidate says something totally wrong. The hope is that the other candidate can handle calling their opponent out, but since Trump knows basically nothing about foreign policy, it might work in his favor if a moderator calls Clinton out on something about her time as secretary of state. Likewise, when Trump starts saying Mexican immigrants are rapists and drug dealers and Clinton isn’t on top of her game, all voters should hope a moderator steps in to set the record straight.
The CPD isn’t a perfect organization, but it does seem like it does some due diligence to make sure the moderators are as diverse and non-controversial as possible so the spotlight stays on the candidates. And with these two on stage, that should be a fairly simple task.