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ANALYSIS: Presidential Debate Moderators Obsess Over Political Horserace, Rarely Ask About Climate Change

  • Debate moderators have asked the presidential candidates more than ten times as many questions about the political horserace and other non-substantive issues as they have asked about climate change, according to a new Media Matters analysis of the first eight presidential primary debates.

    Our analysis found that debate moderators have thus far asked a total of 94 non-substantive questions about the political horserace, campaign gaffes, and other topics that are not related to any policy issue, compared to only 9 questions about climate change. Excluding follow-up questions and not double-counting questions posed to more than one candidate, the moderators still posed more than six times as many non-substantive questions (38) as questions about climate change (6).

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    Non-substantive questions included overtly political topics, such as CNBC asking Jeb Bush to address “how far your stock has fallen in this race”; CNN asking Donald Trump why he is open to naming Ted Cruz as his running mate despite previously calling Cruz a “maniac”; Fox Business asking if Ben Carson's campaign is “being hurt” by his own comments about his life story; CNN asking Bernie Sanders “how can any kind of socialist win a general election in the United States”; CNN asking Hillary Clinton if she will “say anything to get elected”; and multiple networks asking Carson and Trump to pledge that they would not run as independents if they lose the Republican nomination. Questions about controversial comments or gaffes were also counted as non-substantive, such as CNN asking Bush whether a comment he made about women's health issues will “haunt” him like “Mitt Romney's 47 percent video”; CNN asking Carly Fiorina to address disparaging remarks Trump made about her “face”; and Fox News asking Bush and Trump to comment on a report that an anonymous GOP donor said Bush called Trump “a clown, a buffoon, [and] something else that cannot be repeated on television.” Finally, the tally included purely trivial topics, such as CNN asking the Republican candidates what their “Secret Service codename” would be, and ABC asking the Democratic candidates whether their spouses would have an office “close by” in the West Wing of the White House.

    Even when debate moderators did ask about climate change, the framing was sometimes inaccurate or dismissive. For instance, in the first Democratic debate, CNN's Don Lemon rephrased a social media user's question about what candidates will “do to address climate change” by broadly asking Martin O'Malley how he would “protect the environment better than all the other candidates.” As Vox's David Roberts explained, this “maddening segue” suggested that Lemon and CNN view climate change as a “special interest issue” that is only of concern to environmentalists. Additionally, in the second Democratic debate, CBS' John Dickerson noted that Sanders said he wants to “rid the planet of ISIS,” and then asked Sanders if he “still believe[s]” the statement that he made one month prior that climate change poses the greatest threat to America's national security. So in this context, Dickerson was bringing up climate change solely to challenge its importance relative to terrorism.

    Moreover, the sparsity of climate-related questions ensured that there were no detailed follow-up questions about specific policy approaches to the issue. And on the Republican side, most of the climate-related questions were asked to candidates who are not front-runners for the nomination, according to public polling. Indeed, while Chris Christie received multiple climate change questions and Marco Rubio and Rand Paul each received one, not a single climate change question was posed to Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz or Jeb Bush.

    The lack of climate change questions was particularly striking in December, when neither the CNN Republican debate nor the ABC Democratic debate included a single question on the topic, even though they were the first two debates to follow the historic Paris climate change agreement in which every country in the world agreed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.


    Non-substantive questions fell into the following categories:

    • Playing politics -- questions that accused the candidate of engaging in evasiveness, flip-flopping, harsh campaign tactics, etc.
    • Campaign politics -- questions about polling, voter appeal, electability, etc.
    • Rehashing gaffes -- questions that forced the candidate to explain a previous controversial statement
    • Personal/character -- questions involving character traits, lifestyle choices, etc.
    • Triviality -- questions utterly unrelated to any policy or personal issue
    • Quarrel -- questions that sought to instigate conflict between the candidates over non-policy issues

    “Unique” questions excluded follow-up questions on the same topic and did not double-count questions that were asked to more than one candidate. Interjections and clarifications from the moderators were not included as separate questions, unless they were interjections to allow a different candidate to speak (in which case they were included in the total number of questions but not the number of unique questions). This analysis only examined main stage debates, not the “undercard” debates that have occurred on the Republican side.