What Gets Asked at Debates–and Who Gets Asked It?

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What Gets Asked at Debates–and Who Gets Asked It?

A FAIR study of presidential primary debate questions

Moderators at the presidential primary debates. First row: Bret Baier (Fox), Megyn Kelly (Fox), Chris Wallace (Fox); second row: Anderson Cooper (CNN), Jake Tapper (CNN), John Dickerson (CBS). (Collage: via FAIR)

It’s not 2016 yet, but the 2016 presidential election cycle has already seen two Democratic primary debates, four Republican primary debates and four Republican “undercard” debates (for the GOP candidates who weren’t considered ready for primetime). A fifth pair of Republican debates will be held tonight, December 15.

With all this debating, you might think voters were getting a broad view of the policies that the major-party candidates were offering. But as in past elections (FAIR Media Advisory, 10/26/12), the establishment media figures who have moderated the debates have thus far focused the discussion on a narrow range of topics, a FAIR analysis of debate questions finds.

The 536 questions asked in the first four Republican debates, four Republican undercard debates and two Democratic debates were divided into six categories: economic, social, international, immigration, environment and non-policy questions. If the same question was asked to multiple candidates, it was counted each time, but clarifying and follow-up questions to the same candidate were not counted.

FAIR also studied the percentage of questions each candidate was asked. While moderators clearly took candidates’ positions in opinion polls into account when distributing questions, some seemed to get asked more—or less—based on media assumptions about who was and was not a serious contender.

What Was Asked About

Questions Asked by Topic

CNN partnered with Salem Media in the 9/16 debate and with the New York Times and Des Moines Register in the 10/13 debate; in the 11/10 debate, Fox Business Channel partnered with the Wall Street Journal.

One hundred sixty-four (31 percent) of the questions were categorized as non-policy related. A subset of these questions—14, or 3 percent of total questions—involved questions about candidates’ records in public or private life, as when Marco Rubio was asked about “your absentee record in the Senate.” Six of the 14 questions regarding candidates’ records involved Hillary Clinton’s handling of email as secretary of State.

The non-policy category also included questions about electability (of Bernie Sanders, “How can any kind of socialist win a general election in the United States?” or to Lindsey Graham: “How do you explain why so many of your constituents would rather have Donald Trump as the Republican nominee than you?”), general questions about other candidates (“Would you feel comfortable with Donald Trump’s finger on the nuclear codes?” or  “Do you want to tell Secretary Clinton why she shouldn’t get the crown?”), personal questions (“Which enemy are you most proud of?” or “What is your biggest weakness?” or “What experience would you draw on in a crisis?”) and questions about party loyalty (including the first question asked in the entire debate season: “Is there anyone on stage who is unwilling tonight to pledge your support to the eventual nominee of the Republican Party?”).

Twenty-eight of the non-policy questions (5 percent of all questions) might fairly be categorized as silly, e.g., “What would you want your Secret Service codename to be?” or “What are the three apps that you use most frequently on your cellphone?” or “Should the day after the Super Bowl be a national holiday?” Even the more substantive questions in this category, though, tended to illustrate Paul Waldman’s observation in the Washington Post (10/29/15) that “the defining characteristic of almost every debate in recent years is that the journalists doing the questioning go out of their way to try to create drama.”

The next largest category was economic policy, whose 143 questions constituted 27 percent of all questions. Taxes (42 questions) dominated those discussions, followed by social spending (21) and economic growth (21). The questions about social spending (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, etc.) were often framed to Republicans as a question of bootstraps (“How do you get Americans who are able to take the job instead of a handout?”) or in terms of costs (“Considering the mounting cost of Medicare, was [President Ronald Reagan] right to oppose it?”).

Some economic questions did address more progressive concerns: There were eight questions about the minimum wage, six about inequality (“Are there specific steps you would require from corporate America to try and reduce the income inequality?” or “In all candor, you [Clinton] and your husband are part of the one percent. How can you credibly represent the views of the middle class?”) and three about corporate crime.

The 96 questions about social issues comprised 18 percent of all questions. There were 12 questions in this category about surveillance, sometimes unhelpfully personalized (“Edward Snowden, is he a traitor or a hero?”) and other times policy-focused (“Would you shut down the NSA surveillance program?”). Questions about women’s health (12) were often in the context of Planned Parenthood (“Would you be willing to shut down the government when it comes to defunding this group?”) and sometimes about appointing Supreme Court justices (“Is it time for conservatives to impose a litmus test on abortion?”). The 11 questions on gun control were sometimes framed from the right (“Would encouraging more people to be armed be part of your response to a mass shooting?”) and sometimes from the left (“Is Bernie Sanders tough enough on guns?”). There were seven questions about marijuana, seven about marriage equality and five about education.

In the international policy arena, whose 90 questions constituted 17 percent of all questions, the 37 questions about the Syrian civil war, the Islamic State and the “War on Terror” more broadly took center stage. These questions were largely asked from the right, seemingly urging candidates to adopt more hawkish positions: “Under what circumstances would a President Sanders actually use force?” or “How do you propose we screen [Syrian refugees] to keep citizens safe?”

This pattern was particularly pronounced in the CBS Democratic debate the day after the Paris attacks, as when Sanders was asked, “In the previous debate, you said the greatest threat to national security was climate change. Do you still believe that?” or when Clinton was queried: “A couple of days ago you were asked if you would declare war on ISIS and you said no. What would you say now?”

Other international questions dealt with general policy (“When are we going to get some names on your military and your foreign policy advisers?” or “Is [Clinton] too quick to use military force?”), Iran (12 questions) and, unsurprisingly, Benghazi (5).

Thirty-six (7 percent) of all questions were about immigration—counted as a separate category because of its mixed domestic and international aspect. Many questions in this category were framed in the context of unauthorized immigrants (“What do you say to the family of illegals? Are you going to break them apart?”), how immigrants affect the economy (“At the heart of this issue is the effect that illegal immigrants are having on our economy. What will you do about it?”), healthcare and education (“Do you support the undocumented immigrants getting Obamacare?”) and birthright citizenship (“Ms. Fiorina, the vast majority of countries do not have birthright citizenship…. Donald Trump is right about that. Why is it pandering when he says this?”).

What Was Not Asked About

Some topics deemed important by large segments of society got quite little—if any—attention. Although climate change is often regarded as the single greatest threat to humanity, moderators asked only nine questions about it—less than 2 percent of all questions. None of the six questions regarding campaign finance asked what candidates would do about the Citizens United and McCutcheondecisions, or their plans to limit the influence of money on politics; they focused, rather, on whether candidates can personally be trusted, given their contributions from wealthy donors.

There were more questions about Hillary Clinton’s emails (6) and Benghazi (5) than about police brutality (2). Questions regarding institutional racism, including police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement (phrased in the unhelpful binary: “Do black lives matter, or do all lives matter?”), came up less than 2 percent of the time. The only question about the rights of transgender people was not about healthcare or the increasingly disproportionate rate trans people are being murdered, but rather about how trans people serving in the armed forces affects the “definitely changing culture of the American military.”

None of the economics questions mentioned organized labor, or the US’s $500 billion trade deficit.

While there were zero questions about Sub-Saharan Africa, the only questions about Latin America were in the context of Trump’s claims that the Mexican government is sending rapists and drug dealers and criminals across the border. South Asia was ignored, while the only questions about East Asia were five that brought up China in the context of cyberwar and currency manipulation. Despite the heavy focus on the Middle East, no questions dealt directly with the Israel/Palestine conflict.

Who Was Asked

GOP: Questions Asked vs. Polling Averages

Predictably, some candidates got asked more questions than others. In the Republican field, Donald Trump led the way, taking on average 16 percent of the questions in the main GOP debates, followed by Ben Carson and Jeb Bush (12 percent each). Chris Christie and Mike Huckabee, with 7 percent each, got the lowest percentage of questions in the major debates they took part in. The two leading Democratic candidates, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, got nearly the same percentage of questions (33 vs. 31 percent), while the fewest questions on the Democratic side went to Lincoln Chafee, with 13 percent of the questions in the one debate he participated in.

Clearly, the moderators took the candidates’ relative positions in opinion polls into account when distributing questions, but there seemed to be other factors at work as well. We compared the percentage of questions asked each candidate to their average standing in polls at the time of each debate (using theHuffington Post’s poll-tracking feature). These two percentages aren’t directly comparable, since the polling positions of all the candidates on stage didn’t add up to 100, but they do give a basis for comparing popularity and debate attention.

One striking outlier is Jeb Bush; though Ben Carson polled on average more than twice as well as Bush (17 percent vs. 8 percent), they each were asked about the same percentage of questions (12 percent). Similarly, while Ted Cruz polled almost twice as well as Rand Paul (7 percent vs. 4 percent), moderators asked Paul a slightly larger portion of questions than Cruz (10 percent vs. 9 percent). (Paul’s share of questions got a boost in the third Republican debate, which focused on economic issues–topics where Paul is more in line with the Republican establishment than he is on other issues.)

Democrats: Questions Asked vs. Polling Averages

On the Democratic side, the less-crowded field allowed for a somewhat more egalitarian distribution of questions. Martin O’Malley, for example, got approximately two-thirds as many questions as the front-running candidate, Clinton, who outpolled him 25-to-1. On the Republican side, the lowest-ranked candidates on the main stage got about half as many questions as frontrunner Trump, with about one-tenth as much support in polls. Although Jim Webb complained repeatedly about how few questions he was asked in his first and only debate, in terms of percentages it was almost as many (15 percent vs. 16 percent) as Trump was asked on the more crowded GOP stage.

Gunar Olsen

Gunar Olsen is an editorial intern at FAIR and a student at Fordham University.

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