Things seem to be finally heating up in the U.S. Republican presidential primaries. Last week’s debate on Nov. 10, stood in stark contrast to the preceding debates and in a multitude of ways. Most interestingly, the significant changes in the debate format and ensuing candidate performances seems to have more to do with those managing the debate than anything the candidates did themselves.
The importance of the role of debate management and moderators can be better brought to light by comparing this last debate, joint-hosted by Fox Business and Wall Street Journal, with the pseudo-scandalous October 28 debate hosted by CNBC. CNBC was lampooned by political commentators and various media sources across the political spectrum for what was considered a poorly planned and managed debate with a hyper-focus on trivial matters impertinent to major US policy issues. A simple Google news search on “CNBC Debate” comes up with innumerable articles and posts that are scathing critiques of the network’s performance – There are many articles with titles such as “How the CNBC lost its own debate” by Vanity Fair or “CNBC’s really bad debate night” by The Washington Post. Of course, if one searches, there can be found some slightly less damning titles, such as “In (Partial) Defense of CNBC” by The New Yorker. The negative perception of this debate was even evident amongst the audience members present, as they roared in applause when Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz criticized CNBC in the middle of the debate, saying:
“The questions asked in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media… This is not a cage match. And you look at the questions: Donald Trump, are you a comic book villain? Ben Carson, can you do math? John Kasich, will you insult two people over here? Marco Rubio, why don’t you resign? Jeb Bush, why have your numbers fallen? How about talking about the substantive issues?”
The across-the-board political mockery of CNBC sent a signal that the American people want an actual debate rather than a live on-stage Republican reality TV show – Fox Business and Wall Street Journal did not fail to deliver and the changes incorporated into this debate has already helped “shake up” the race.
The re-focusing of the debate questions on more specific issues has been troubling for many candidates and beneficial to others. Trump, who has excelled as the front runner thus far in the polls, had notably more trouble answering questions that didn’t allow for vague overarching generalizations or unspecified promises as answers (e.g. “[The United States] will change. We will have so much winning if I get elected that you may get bored with winning. Believe me.”). For instance, when asked about his stance on the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, Trump claimed it was disastrous as it allowed other nations to “take advantage” of the US, particularly China: “Almost everybody takes advantage of the United States. China in particular, because they’re so good. It’s the number one abuser of this country”. Republican candidate Rand Paul, whose comparative lack of a capacity for flamboyant rhetoric has hurt his polling in recent debates, pointed out Trump’s general lack of policy understanding by noting that China is not part of the deal and in fact, is outright opposed to it: “you know, we might want to point out China is not part of this deal…. There is an argument that China doesn’t like the deal, because in us doing the deal we will be trading with [China’s] competitors”.
This debate granted the American public a more concrete view of the candidates’ understanding of important policy issues – or the lack there of – resulting in the front runners, Trump and Carson, losing some of their lion’s share of polling points to candidates who were finally able to articulate their relatively more substantive platforms. This all goes to show that the results of an election do not fall solely on the shoulders of the candidates but also on the media who determine the light in which candidates perform.
Assistant External News Editor