Friday, September 23, 2011

Voters Ask Policy Questions

I had a column over at Salon yesterday looking into differences by network in debate questions so far this cycle. The quick conclusion was that Newt Gingrich was absolutely right in Ames when he complained that Fox was asking an unusual number of "gotcha" questions (see the link for the categories).

That changed a bit in Florida yesterday; about half of the questions were what I would call basic policy questions. And that's no surprise, because the format included "regular people" asking questions, and regular people generally ask policy questions. So in Florida, 11 of the 12 regular people questions were basic policy questions, including most famously the soldier in Iraq who asked whether the candidates would reinstate the ban on gays and lesbians in the military (this includes one question from the anti-immigration interest group FAIR, which isn't actually a regular voter, but does not include a regular person question about immigration that was hijacked by a moderator and converted into a political question).

So almost all of the voter questions were about policy -- but the moderator-initiated questions were very different, with fewer than a third basic policy questions, just edging out gotcha questions.

Of course, this could have been a strategy by the moderators. Knowing they were going to use policy questions from videos, they then used their own questions for other things. My own feeling, as I said over at Salon, is that I'd go with almost all policy questions, although moderator-written ones tend to be better than voter questions. I tend not to like gotcha questions at all, but I can understand some need for them -- but at debates, in my view they mainly serve the interests of the moderators and of reporters (and bloggers) who follow this stuff obsessively. Gotcha questions, and especially questions about politics, are mostly useless to voters, and I suspect not especially useful for most party actors.

I know others disagree with me and consider basic policy questions to be too easy. They can be easy! But that doesn't make them bad questions.

At any rate, those who want these things to be hard-hitting press conferences focused on reporters exposing candidate lies or mistakes should like the Fox debates. Me, I think that gets it all wrong, so I prefer CNN's format and methods.

4 comments:

  1. "but at debates, in my view they mainly serve the interests of the moderators and of reporters (and bloggers) who follow this stuff obsessively. Gotcha questions, and especially questions about politics, are mostly useless to voters, and I suspect not especially useful for most party actors."

    This is more true on the D side, but how do you distinguish party actors from bloggers?

    If anything, I'd think in the invisible primary situation, gotcha questions would be more useful for party elites.

    And I am the only one who thought Wolfie's question to Ron Paul about a 30 year old man dying was directly related to his former campaign manger dying of AIDS?

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  2. Good catch -- partisan bloggers certainly count in my view as party actors.

    I do think party insiders (or whatever) are going to be interested in how the candidates handle defending themselves, but they should get plenty of that as long as the debate format allows the candidates to attack each other and then respond.

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  3. When it comes to policy, it's often easy for a pol to talk about their policy position, assuming they have prepared policies for the most important issue. What's more important is how they answer a follow-up question that shows the holes in their position. How often do non-professionals get to ask those follow-up questions?

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  4. I agree that it should be easy for a candidate to recite prepared talking points for most issues, although it's certainly worth noting if a candidate fails to do that.

    I tend not to agree that how they react to the follow-up is more important. What that may show is just that they're well-trained at the art of answering news conference questions.

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