Tonight’s town hall-style presidential debate will ostensibly feature questions from undecided voters, but the evening’s agenda will really be decided by the moderator, as CNN’s Candy Crowley will select which of the more than roughly 80 voters in the room will actually get a chance to talk to the candidates.
Reviewing the five previous town hall debates, the journalist-moderators have tended to skew the agenda of these so-called citizen forums to the liberal side of the spectrum, but not always. In 2004, ABC’s Charles Gibson selected a balanced menu of questions, with questions from the left matching those from the right.
But Gibson is the lone exception. The other journalists who have moderated these forums — ABC’s Carole Simpson in 1992, PBS’s Jim Lehrer in 1996 and 2000, and NBC’s Tom Brokaw in 2008 — all favored liberal agenda questions as they chose which of the undecided voters would actually participate in the debate.
The bottom line: if history is a reliable guide, Mitt Romney has twice the chance of facing a hostile liberal question Tuesday night as Barack Obama has of facing a question based on a conservative agenda, as the record shows a 2-to-1 tilt to the left in past town hall debates.
The Media Research Center has examined the agenda of every town hall debate since the format debuted 20 years ago. In the 1992 Bush-Clinton-Perot debate in Richmond, we scored eight audience questions as straightforward requests for information, four liberal questions, and no conservative questions. One participant that year described the election as about choosing a father who would take care of citizens, whom he referred to as “children.”
The focus of my work as a domestic mediator is meeting the needs of the children that I work with, by way of their parents, and not the wants of their parents. And I ask the three of you, how can we, as symbolically the children of the future president, expect the two of you, the three of you to meet our needs, the needs in housing and in crime and you name it, as opposed to the wants of your political spin doctors and your political parties?
Four years later, we tallied ten questions as straightforward, five as conveying a liberal agenda, and three as conservative. That year, one voter asked Bill Clinton whether he had “plans to expand the Family Leave Act,” while another insisted during a discussion of health care that “the private sector is a problem.”
In 2000, moderator Jim Lehrer favored liberal questions by an 8-to-2 margin over conservative questions. Examples from that debate: One voter asked George W. Bush and Al Gore: “Would you be open to the idea of a national health care plan for everybody?” while another targeted Bush:
We’d like to know why you object to the Brady handgun bill, if you do object to it. Because in a recent TV ad, it showed that the [NRA] says if you are elected that they will be working out of your office...actually, that kind of bothers me.
In 2004, anchor Charles Gibson picked an ideologically balanced set of questions: eight from the left/pro-Kerry, eight from the right/pro-Bush and two ambiguous/neutral. From the left, one voter lectured then-President Bush about the “intensity of aggravation that other countries had with how we handled the Iraq situation,” while another complained about the Patriot Act “which takes away checks on law enforcement and weakens American citizens’ rights and freedoms....Why are my rights being watered down?”
But balancing the night, Gibson also showcased a voter who posed this tough question to John Kerry: “You’ve stated your concern for the rising cost of health care, yet you chose a vice presidential candidate who has made millions of dollars successfully suing medical professionals. How do you reconcile this with the voters?”
Another voter aimed at Kerry’s cynical use of stem cell research to paint Republicans as anti-science. “Senator Kerry, thousands of people have already been cured or treated by the use of adult stem cells or umbilical cord stem cells. However, no one has been cured by using embryonic stem cells. Wouldn’t it be wise to use stem cells obtained without the destruction of an embryo?”
In 2008, NBC’s Tom Brokaw selected a dozen questions from citizens — three from the left, none from the right, and nine that were neutral/informational. The Obama-McCain town hall debate took place at the height of the financial panic that year, and one voter demanded to know “What’s the fastest, most positive solution to bail these people [retirees and workers] out of the economic ruin?”
Another voter wanted to see a flurry of legislation to create “green jobs,” telling John McCain: “We saw that Congress moved pretty fast in the face of an economic crisis. I want to know, what you would do within the first two years to make sure that Congress moves fast as far as environmental issues, like climate change and green jobs?”
As the Gibson example shows, a moderator has it within their power to ensure an ideologically balanced discussion of the issues — to serve all of the potential voters who might be watching. It’s up to Crowley to determine whether the candidates will face equally tough questioning, or whether the liberal Barack Obama will face a friendlier agenda than Mitt Romney.