As the first Democratic primary debate kicks off in Miami Wednesday night, the largest field of presidential candidates in history will take the stage and put themselves at the mercy of five television moderators. The spectacle will be expensive and massively produced. Such debates are some of the most profitable events in television news.
NBC, the host of the debate, has pulled personalities from all corners of its empire: NBC News, MSNBC and Telemundo. The debate will be broadcast across those three networks for two hours a night for two consecutive nights. But with 20 candidates — 10 a night — viewers will probably hear more from the moderators than any single candidate.
Lester Holt, the anchor of NBC Nightly News, is the glue that holds the evenings together. He will be onstage for all four hours, joined by NBC’s Savannah Guthrie and Telemundo’s José Díaz-Balart for the first hour. In the second hour, “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow will join him.
The moderators have been spending weeks reviewing briefing books on each candidate, and have come together for hours a day in between their regular on-air roles to tackle the mathematical challenge of getting to each candidate onstage.
“The moderators — the good ones — really have really two primary goals,” said Washington superlawyer Robert Barnett, who frequently works on debate prep with candidates. “Ask questions that will inform their viewers and try to draw candidates off their talking points, which is incredibly difficult with 10 people on the stage.”
There are obvious pitfalls to avoid. Last cycle, not one debate moderator asked candidates questions about climate change, for example, a mistake not likely to be repeated this time around.
Holt and his colleagues toured the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Miami Tuesday morning to get a feeling for the debate venue, the candidate positions onstage, the lighting and all the details of the production.
To take the swirl of issues and candidates and create some order, “we got our core team — moderators, the politics team, and the producers who support them — and we hashed out, not only the issues, but the various positions for each candidate, and we talked about the best way to highlight differentiations,” said Rashida Jones, senior vice president of specials for NBC News and MSNBC. “It is a huge effort of collaboration.”
As much as NBC is trying to orchestrate the event, one staffer involved in the planning of the debate, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the staffer was not authorized to speak about internal NBC matters, said the thing they’re most worried about is the unexpected, and specifically, President Trump. Is he going to crash this in some way on Twitter?
The moderators won’t be able to control what happens off the stage in Miami, but here is a sampling of the experience they’ll bring to the first debate.
Lester Holt is the staid and sober anchor of NBC Nightly News, a mantle he inherited when Brian Williams was forced to step down from the role after fabricating his role in a variety of news events. Holt moderated the first presidential debate of 2016 between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, and his presence was noted mostly for how much he stayed in the background.
Holt jumped in most forcefully when Trump claimed that he was always against the war in Iraq, to which Holt reminded the candidate: “The record shows otherwise”.
Holt’s most consequential moment of the Trump era came when, in May 2017, he pressed the president on his decision to fire then-FBI director James B. Comey. Trump explained to Holt his rationale for doing so: “I said, ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story.’ ”
It was the first time Trump had linked the firing to the Russia investigation.
José Díaz-Balart hosts "MSNBC Live with José Díaz-Balart" and anchors two programs on Telemundo. He is also part of the rotation of anchors on NBC Nightly News Saturday. He has interviewed every American president since Ronald Reagan, according to Telemundo, and interviewed President Barack Obama more than 10 times.
In July 2015, Díaz-Balart challenged Trump on his comments calling Mexicans “rapists” in a speech disparaging immigrants. Trump interrupted the question to attack the news anchor and the media in general. When Díaz-Balart tried to follow up, Trump waved his hand dismissively toward Díaz-Balart and said, “No, No. You’re finished.”
But Trump granted Díaz-Balart an interview last week after launching his reelection campaign in Florida. In that interview, Trump said Latino voters support his immigration agenda, including mass deportations. “They want me to do it. They’re here illegally,” Trump said. To which Díaz-Balart responded, “Mr. President, they do not.”
Savannah Guthrie is a co-anchor of the Today Show and NBC's chief legal correspondent. While she moderated a town hall with Hillary Clinton in 2015, and another with Trump in the same cycle, she has not moderated a presidential primary debate before.
Guthrie is known for her even-keeled demeanor, as demonstrated in a testy interview with then-presidential candidate Rand Paul, who repeatedly talked over her questions. She also chipperly asked former House speaker Paul D. Ryan “Are you living in a fantasy world?” when he asserted the GOP tax bill would help workers.
She is one of the female television anchors who reported on a male co-anchor being accused of sexual harassment. (In late 2017, Guthrie reported on the news that Matt Lauer had been fired for sexual misconduct allegations.)
Rachel Maddow is the star of MSNBC's opinion lineup and the most controversial moderator that NBC selected for the debate. With her lengthy monologues and in-depth interviews, she has led viewers step by step through every turn in the Russia investigation. She has also become a major face of the cable-news Resistance. The New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm wrote that Maddow's show "permits liberals to enjoy themselves during what may be the most thoroughly unenjoyable time of their political lives."
But some of those turns of the investigation have been overblown, as when she overhyped two pages of Trump’s tax returns that she exclusively obtained. Critics said her report raised more questions than it answered.
She recently told late-night host Seth Meyers that she thought the Democratic nomination should be hard-fought, and expressed how much work it was to prepare for such a large field of candidates. “How do you not only begin to understand all 20 of them, but also understand the potential interactions between them,” she told Meyers.
Together with Todd, Maddow moderated a Democratic primary debate in the 2016 election. She hugged both candidates at the end, drawing criticism from some conservative commentators.
Chuck Todd is the host of NBC News's Sunday morning flagship program "Meet the Press," as well as MTP Daily, each weekday on MSNBC.
Todd, who also holds the title of political director for NBC News, oversees a lively Sunday roundtable of inside-the-Beltway faithfuls. But recently he has been criticized for failing to fact-check his guests in real time.
“Chuck Todd Fails Journalism 101 When Steve Scalise Lies” read a headline on Crooksandliars.com when the host allowed the congressman to claim incorrectly that the basis of the Mueller report was information Democrats got from Russia by soliciting foreign spies to target then-candidate Trump.
Todd also faced criticism for a recent interview with Trump, who falsely claimed that he had inherited his family-separation policy from Obama. Todd did not push back on that statement.
But Todd has also won accolades for his reporting. Earlier this year, the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism granted him the Walter Cronkite Award for his special on climate change, in which he “devoted an entire hour to the reality of climate change, rather than giving airtime to a fake equivalence between science and science deniers,” according to the award’s committee.