The duo overseeing Sunday’s debate, Anderson Cooper of CNN and Martha Raddatz of ABC News, seemed to cast off the hand-wringing pressures placed on this year’s crop of moderators and put themselves directly at the center of a high-stakes encounter.
They dug for revelations, extracting news nuggets like Donald Trump’s admission that he had used a nearly billion-dollar loss to avoid paying federal income taxes for years.
They pressed for specifics, interrupting the candidates to demand concrete strategies for handling conflict in Syria and reforming the nation’s health care system.
And they posed blunt, provocative questions at a forum that typically feels more like public broadcasting than cable news: Had Trump ever sexually assaulted a woman? Did Hillary Clinton really believe that her use of a private email server was not “extremely careless”?
The duo overseeing Sunday’s debate, Anderson Cooper of CNN and Martha Raddatz of ABC News, seemed to cast off the hand-wringing pressures placed on this year’s crop of moderators — Is fact-checking mandatory? Are interruptions OK? — and put themselves directly at the center of a high-stakes encounter.
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The immediate response was praise from many journalists and some grumbling from partisans. One prominent critic, in fact, was sharing the debate stage: Trump, who did not hesitate to make his complaints known in real time.
“Why aren’t you bringing up the emails?” he asked Cooper at one point, after Trump believed he had been unfairly cut off. When Cooper replied, accurately, that the moderators had asked about Clinton’s email server, Trump threw up his hands.
“One on three,” he muttered, suggesting that the panel was stacked against him.
Later, Trump again questioned the umpires. “You know what’s funny? She went a minute over, and you don’t stop her,” he said to Raddatz, who had cut him off. “When I go one second over it’s like a big deal —”
“You had many answers,” Raddatz replied.
Trump did face notably sharp questions about the recording that surfaced Friday in which he boasts about kissing and grabbing women. “You bragged that you have sexually assaulted women — do you understand that?” Cooper asked. When Trump dismissed the comments as “locker room-talk,” Cooper pressed several times — “have you ever done those things?” — until Trump finally asserted that he had not.
The moderators also pushed Clinton. Raddatz, discussing the candidate’s paid speeches to Wall Street banks, asked, “Is it OK for politicians to be two-faced?” Cooper asked Clinton how she could “unite a country” after dismissing half of Trump’s supporters as “deplorable.”
There were moments, too, where the moderators chastised the audience for cheering — and sternly cut off the candidates — as they tried to de-escalate the cage-match atmosphere that seemed to quickly envelop the room.
“The audience needs to calm down here,” Raddatz said, turning to the crowd. When Trump interrupted Clinton at one point, Cooper rebuked him. “She didn’t talk when you talked.”
Some conservatives were unimpressed. “More Anderson Cooper rebuttal to assist Hillary,” Eric Bolling, a Fox News commentator, wrote on Twitter. “Who picks these moderators?”
One group that appeared shortchanged was the undecided voters sitting onstage, who, between the moderators’ tough questions and the candidate’s heated exchanges, received relatively little airtime. The moderators appeared willing to buck the debate’s format when they deemed a particular interaction newsworthy or illuminating.
This tactic was from the one Elaine Quijano used in the vice-presidential debate last week, who often cut off candidates’ answers so she could move to her next question. And the moderators eschewed the minimalist approach by Lester Holt of NBC in the first debate, who was less assertive and often remained silent for minutes at a time.
If the first debate became something of a referendum on the role of the moderator — to fact-check or not to fact-check? — the buildup to Sunday’s event was more focused on the raucous nature of the evening.
Trump, a temperamental figure under the best of circumstances, walked onstage Sunday facing a growing revolt within his own party and even his own ticket: his running mate, Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana, issued a statement declaring that Trump “has to show what is in his heart when he goes before the nation tomorrow night.”
Walking into this fray were Cooper and Raddatz, experienced moderators both, who were preparing for unique challenges.
The choice of Cooper, who is gay, prompted grumbling among some conservatives, who questioned his personal politics. Raddatz was the subject of a Breitbart News report Sunday scrutinizing her coverage of President Barack Obama.
Although Raddatz moderated the vice-presidential debate in 2012, that event was seen by 51 million viewers. At the high end, Sunday’s event was estimated to attract nearly twice that.
Network executives were predicting a huge audience, in part because many Americans are home on Sunday evenings. But the extraordinary events of the last few days significantly raised those expectations.
Last month’s debate between Trump and Clinton was seen by about 84 million Americans — a record for presidential debates, but shy of the 100 million or more viewers that typically tune in for the Super Bowl.
Typically, the second debate sees a drop in viewers. Still, in 2008, the second matchup between Obama and John McCain attracted nearly 11 million more viewers than their first; in 1992, the second debate among Bill Clinton, George Bush and Ross Perot outscored the first by about 7 million viewers.