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Presidential Debates: What Is the Moderator’s Job?

A good moderator helps the candidates give voters the information they need.

By:  |  October 14, 2020  |    445 Words

President Obama faces off against challenger Mitt Romney (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Before an election, the nominees for president for the Democrats and Republicans usually go head-to-head in a televised debate, where they get to discuss the issues. But this can turn into chaos when one or both candidates stops talking about policy and starts insulting the other person. That’s why a moderator is there to ask questions and make sure the event goes smoothly. The moderator is not there to influence the election’s outcome but to direct the flow of information for voters to make an educated decision.

#1: No Audience Laugh Track

Many presidential debates have allowed for a studio audience to give audible feedback to the candidates: applause, cheering, laughter, and booing. It unconsciously assigns opinions to the viewer. While this is fine for entertainment, it is inappropriate for political debate because the format then has an effect on the outcome.

presidential debate

John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, with moderator in the center (Getty Images)

#2: Focus on Policies

The moderator’s job is to highlight the political platforms of the candidates. By asking questions that look to the future, the moderator helps each candidate present a positive vision of what they would like to achieve. These goals may be unrealistic or based on lies, but it should be up to the other candidate to expose any flaws, not the moderator.

The more mechanical this process is, the better behaved the candidates will be. For example, in the question segment, the candidates may be given one minute to respond to a claim. The candidate should then see a clock counting down and be signaled when 15 seconds remain. This helps solve the issue of interruption.

#3: Get the Facts Straight

A moderator may make statements of facts as part of his questioning, but such claims should be uncontroversial and accepted by all. The worst thing a moderator can do is present a false statement as accurate.

presidential debate

President Reagan and his Democratic opponent, Walter Mondale, with moderator (Getty Images)

#4: Don’t Be Confrontational

A moderator’s role is to guide the themes and information flow of the debate. It is not his role to be confrontational toward the candidates. That should be left to the debaters.

#5: Don’t Be Divisive

Merriam-Webster defines the verb “to moderate” as “to lessen the intensity or extremeness of” or “to become less violent, severe, or intense.” These definitions give a good indication of the primary function of a moderator.

Under no circumstances should he be divisive. That means he shouldn’t cause division or disagreement among people – some would say that’s the job of those doing the debating!

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