But debates are only part of the American voter’s political diet. Like 30-second ads or stump speeches, they do as much to confirm impressions as to alter them. Think back to some memorable debate moments. Did George H.W. Bush glancing at his watch really persuade people to vote for Bill Clinton, or did it confirm the worst suspicions of those already leaning away from him? Did Lloyd Bentsen dismissing Dan Quayle as “no Jack Kennedy” lose the election for Michael Dukakis, or did it speak to an existing worry that Bush lacked the judgment to pick a No. 2 who could assume the presidency?
Minds were already made up. Gallup polls going back decades show precious little shift in established voter trends before and after debates. The major exception: 1960, when Gallup suggests that Richard Nixon’s lackluster, sweaty performance against John F. Kennedy moved a dead-heat campaign into the Democrats’ column — and that’s where it stayed.
2. Candidates approve the questions ahead of time.
As if. I get asked this question more than almost any other. (That, and “Is Sarah Palin really as pretty close up?”)
As a moderator, I took my cue from Jim Lehrer, who has moderated a dozen debates and has become the gold standard for the job. He advised me to keep my questions to myself. I went to such extremes to do so that in hindsight, it seems a bit paranoid. Not only did the candidates not see my questions before the debates, but precious few other two-legged mammals did. The Commission on Presidential Debates never saw them. My pastor never saw them. My family never saw them. Even Jim never saw them. And these are people I trust.
On one occasion, when I realized that my hotel room was at the opposite end of the hall from a candidate’s room, I timed my exit from the elevator to dash into my room without being spotted by campaign staffers. On another, I refused to let hotel staff members into my room who seemed like they wanted to do more than freshen the towels.
I’m sure I was right to be careful. I’ve since learned that the campaigns spent as much time sussing out what I might ask as I spent trying to make sure they didn’t find out.
3. The moderator should pick fights with the candidates.
When John Edwards slyly slipped a mention of Dick Cheney’s daughter’s sexual orientation into an answer in 2004, or when Palin blithely assured 67 million viewers that she did not think it was her responsibility to answer my questions, I let it pass.
Not every moderator would have done that, but I concluded in each case that I had two choices. I could raise my voice, arch my eyebrows and express outrage. However, this would have made the debate about me and not the candidates. And guess what? Moderators don’t matter.
My other option was to leave it up to the candidate’s opponent to call him or her on ducked answers. I took this option. Why, after all, are there two candidates on stage if not to debate each other? Cheney took Edwards to task. Biden let Palin slide.