Questioning the Questioners in the Presidential Debates

Here is the who and the why behind the softballs and curves pitched at Obama and Romney from here until November.

Advocacy groups are linking their messaging to tonight’s opening presidential debate in a bid to have their issues raised during the discussion.

Stephen Barton, who was wounded in the Aurora, Colorado movie theater massacre this summer, appeared in a recent TV ad for Mayors Against Illegal Guns asking viewers to “demand a plan” to end gun violence from the presidential candidates.

“When you watch the presidential debates, ask yourself: Who has a plan to stop gun violence? Let’s demand a plan,” says Barton in the 30-second spot.

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Wednesday night’s debate is in Denver and is focused on domestic issues. With only six questions in the 90-minute exchange, it’s not clear that moderator Jim Lehrer will take Barton’s ad into account.

Influencing the topics in presidential debates is a lofty goal for advocacy groups and, given the format of the debates, it’s not really clear how to make that influence happen.

“There’s always going to be someone throwing a shoe at the television asking why don’t I know this or why I didn’t ask that.”

Generation Opportunity, a 501(c)(4) focused on youth economic and educational issues, has sought to use so-called earned media to “shape the national dialogue” ahead of the debates, according to Paul Conway, the non-profit’s president.

“Youth unemployment is at the highest it’s been since World War II,” Conway tells TakePart. He notes that joblessness (when people who have stopped looking for work are factored in) currently stands at almost 17 percent for those aged 18-29. “For our purposes, we actually worked to shape the national dialogue and terrain long before the debate. You’ll see us comment on anything.”

Conway says his group will also use its Facebook page to respond to what the candidates say during the debate.

During the primaries, networks experimented with incorporating social media into the debate format with some success.

But the Commission on Presidential Debates, the bi-partisan body that sets the schedule and format for the presidential campaign face-offs, has resisted those kinds of changes. In fact, the most significant tweak the commission has made since 1988, it’s first year in existence, was to do away with the panel of questioners.

In the coming weeks, viewers can tune into four debates (including Wednesday’s), three between Obama and Romney and one between Vice President Joe Biden and Representative Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). Each debate has a single moderator selected by the commission.

“Our objective is to constantly remove any impediment to the public learning more about the candidates,” Janet Brown, the commission’s executive director, recently told Campaigns & Elections magazine. “Whether that’s getting rid of time limits or any bells, whistles, remote insertions—anything that basically takes away from trying to understand these candidates better.”

The two male moderators, CBS’s Bob Schieffer and PBS’s Jim Lehrer, are both in their mid 70s.

CNN’s Candy Crowley, who will be only the second woman to moderate a presidential debate when she takes her chair October 16, and ABC’s Martha Raddatz, who is moderating the vice presidential match up October 11, are relatively younger. All the moderators are white. That lack of diversity has sparked criticism from some commentators.

What are the odds of gun violence being addressed in one of the 2012 presidential debates?

Frank Fahrenkopf, a Republican who heads the American Gaming Association and co-chairs the debate commission, blamed the television networks for not grooming enough minority anchors for the role.

“The television industry has not done a very good job with diversity with regard to really having women, or blacks or Hispanics in leading situations,” he told the Poynter Journalism Institute.

For groups looking to get their issue raised, the moderators wield an incredible amount of power in determining what gets talked about.

Lehrer, for instance, said he’s ironed out a preparation system since he moderated his first debate in 1988—and it doesn’t include taking questions from social media.  “If I’m not physically doing it, it’s in my head," he told the New York Times.

Schieffer, who will be hosting the foreign policy debate between Obama and Romney October 22, said he maintains a three-ring binder of news clippings and asks “smart people” about potential questions.

Raddatz said she’s soliciting advice about topics from her colleagues, sources and experts—“as wide a net as I can cast without making myself crazy and overwhelmed.”

Crowley accepts, inevitably, people will be mad she didn’t ask one question or another.

“There’s always going to be someone throwing a shoe at the television asking why don’t I know this or why I didn’t ask that,” she told the Times.

What questions would you like to hear poised to the presidential candidates? Pitch your hardballs in COMMENTS.

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Sean J. Miller is a Los Angeles-based writer. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Back Stage, The Christian Science Monitor and The Hill.