master debaters

How Moderator Martha Raddatz Won the Debate

From the minute she used an anecdote about her own phone blaring Chamillionaire’s “Ridin’ Dirty” during a White House press briefing to ask people to turn their phones off, ABC News’ Martha Raddatz distinguished herself in just about every way from Jim Lehrer. She asked pointed questions, kept the candidates roughly within the time constraints, and switched topics smoothly, such as when she asked Paul Ryan and Joe Biden to talk about Iran. Buzzfeed already found 21 people willing to vote for Raddatz based on her debate performance alone. Andrew Sullivan writes she’s “making the case for Jim Lehrer’s retirement,” and Vulture’s Joe Adalain is ready to name a journalism school after her.

How did she do it?

She was assertive: “I think we’ve gone over this quite enough,” Raddatz said, when she wanted to corral the candidates. When she felt it was time to talk about Iran, she cut the conversation off and simply said said, “Let’s move to Iran,” pointing out that “there’s really no bigger national security [threat].” Who’s going to argue with that?

She asked specific questions: Instead of asking the candidates to simply describe their differences, Raddatz asked them to talk about specific scenarios. Taking the Iran example again, she asked, “Can the two of you be absolutely clear and specific to the American people how effective would a military strike be?” When she asked about the economy, she didn’t say “describe your economic policy.” She said, “will you level with the American people? Can you get unemployment under 6 percent, and how long will it take?”

She had details at hand: The question about the economy provides a good illustration. She prefaced her query with a detailed overview of the current economic situation: “The percentage of unemployed just fell below 8 percent for the first time in 43 months. The Obama administration had projected that it would fall below 6 percent now after the addition of close to a trillion dollars in stimulus money.”

She asked tough follow-up questions: When Ryan criticized the president’s handling of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Raddatz followed up with a question about Mitt Romney’s own mishandling of the situation, politically: “Was that really appropriate right in the middle of the crisis?” When Biden said later that Ryan was talking “a bunch of stuff,” Raddatz deadpanned: “What does that mean, a bunch of stuff?”

She got personal: Raddatz played it tough, but she also drew the candidates out. Instead of simply asking them about their views on abortion, she asked them to describe the role religion had played in forming those views. “Please talk about how you came to that decision. Talk about how your religion played a part in that. And, please, this is such an emotional issue for so many people in this country … please talk personally about this, if you could.”