Democratic presidential candidates debated Thursday in Houston. (David J. Phillip/AP)

The complexity of the math surrounding the Democratic primary debates that have been held so far in 2019 begins at the top. There have been three debates, but those debates have taken place on five nights. The first and second debates involved 20 people, only 10 of whom were interacting at any given time. It’s not as if this is impossible to parse, but it does remind us of the ramifications of the sprawling Democratic primary field.

Those three/five debates were broadcast on three television networks, with 12 different moderators asking questions. In the first debate(s), NBC News involved five journalists. For the second, CNN used three. In Thursday night’s debate, ABC News deployed four. Between them, according to my tally, they posed 370 questions to 21 candidates, excluding “you can respond because you were attacked” questions but including the myriad “so-and-so, I’d like to get your response” ones.

The distribution of those 370 questions looked like this.


(Philip Bump/The Washington Post)

CNN’s hyperactive format — short question times and enthusiastic cutoffs — and smaller moderating crew meant that the network’s Jake Tapper alone asked more than 15 percent of the questions. About 20 percent of the questions asked fell on each of the five nights, though ABC’s crew allowed for more expansive responses and, therefore, asked 17.5 percent of the total questions to date.

None of that is what I’m here to answer, though. Instead, I wanted to answer a question that popped on Thursday as ABC’s Jorge Ramos was interrogating the Democrats about immigration: Was the perception that it was mostly Hispanic anchors asking immigration-related questions correct?

The debate moderators were themselves a diverse crew. Four were white men: Tapper, NBC’s Chuck Todd and ABC’s George Stephanopoulos and David Muir. There were three white women: NBC’s Savannah Guthrie and Rachel Maddow and CNN’s Dana Bash. Two black men also asked questions: NBC’s Lester Holt and CNN’s Don Lemon. The two Hispanic men were Ramos and NBC’s Jose Diaz-Balart. The 12th moderator was ABC’s Linsey Davis, a black woman.

Put another way, five of the 12 moderators weren’t white, and four weren’t male. Eight weren’t white men.

Yet of the 56 questions related to immigration or to issues involving the Latino community, white men asked only two. Those two questions were asked by the same white man, Todd, who picked up a line of argument from Maddow in the second night of the first debate about the importance of nominating a Democratic candidate who wasn’t a white man.

There were, by my count, 109 questions focused on race or gender. That includes edge cases like criminal justice reform and more obvious ones like reproductive rights and police shootings of black men. There are obviously points at which different topics overlap, so I took a fairly inclusive approach to the questions.


(Philip Bump/The Washington Post)

Of the 109 questions that related to race or gender, 11 dealt with issues specific to women. Six of those were asked by women.

As noted above, 56 dealt with immigration or issues of importance to the Latino community. Twenty of them were asked by either Diaz-Balart or Ramos, meaning that the Hispanic moderators (17 percent of the total) asked more than a third of those questions. Thirty-five of the questions in this area were asked by moderators who weren’t white. White men (a third of the moderators) asked 4 percent of those questions.

The other 42 questions dealt with issues related to the black community and race. Thirteen of those were asked by white men. Twenty-three were asked by black moderators. That’s 55 percent of the questions asked by a quarter of the moderator pool.

Black candidates weren’t much more likely to get those questions than nonblack candidates. Women, who made up about a quarter of the candidate pool, were asked a bit over a third of the questions about women’s issues.

The white male moderators were over-represented on one type of question: those dealing with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or foreign policy more broadly.

There were 44 such questions asked, 38 of which were asked by white men.