Debate Watchers Score Schieffer Best Moderator, Still Want More Challenges to Candidate Spin

After final presidential debate, viewers call for open format and more fact-checking
Contact Info: 
Jen Howard, Free Press, (202) 265-1490 x22 or (703) 517-6273

NEW YORK -- In the partisan minefield of the closing days of the 2008 campaign, supporters of both Barack Obama and John McCain gave CBS News anchor Bob Schieffer a thumbs-up for his moderation of the third and final presidential debate at Hofstra University on Long Island.

Yet large numbers of those from both sides of the political aisle felt the moderator could have done more to challenge the candidates' spin with tougher follow-up questions. The results come from a survey conducted by Free Press, the national, nonpartisan media reform group, and devised by Andrew Tyndall, publisher of Tyndall Report.

"Usually, these debates are perceived through such partisan eyes that no clear consensus emerges," Tyndall observed. "Yet both sides agreed that Bob Schieffer comes out as the winner of this fall's series of debates -- and Tom Brokaw is bringing up the rear."

Schieffer Tops Brokaw

Schieffer's questions were graded as "extremely serious and relevant" by majorities of both groups of supporters from the more than 2,700 volunteers who participated in the Citizens' Media Scorecard, including 62% of McCain's supporters and 72% of Obama's.

The volunteer panel was asked to pick their favorite moderator and debate format. A virtually identical majority of both candidates' supporters picked Schieffer as the best (62% of McCain's; 63% of Obama's) and almost nobody ranked NBC's Brokaw No. 1 (8% and 6%, respectively). Jim Lehrer of PBS was ranked better than Brokaw, worse than Schieffer.

The debate that divided the panel on partisan lines was the vice-presidential meeting between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin and moderated by PBS's Gwen Ifill: Only 30% of McCain's supporters rated Schieffer's debate as superior to Ifill's, whereas 74% of Obama's supporters preferred Schieffer's.

More Public, Less Spin

Despite their general praise of Schieffer, the debate raters agreed that he didn't do enough to challenge the candidates' factual misstatements or spin with tough follow-up questions (64% of McCain's supporters; 58% of Obama's).

This concern has been consistent in prior debates, with many reporting that the debate format limited the public's ability to get engaged in the discussion, while not allowing enough leeway for a departure from scripted answers.

"I'm not really sure that it is necessary to have an audience at all, since they weren't allowed to talk and had to remain neutral," complained one of the debate watchers. "Why have people there at all? We only see them as the candidates walk in."

"I would like for the audience to be able to respond by clapping when they agree with the candidate's position," responded another. "It makes debates much more lively."

"Questions should be drawn from a pool that are submitted and voted upon by citizens either online or by other means," another viewer wrote. "This would achieve a closer approximation to what people really want to know without filtering."

Several other panelists called for instant fact-checking of answers, so candidates could not take advantage of the format to spin issues and avoid real answers. "We should have fact-checkers going during the debate so we know when one candidate is lying," suggested one rater. "The average American does not have the time to fact check everything the senators say."

Why Schieffer?

There may have been clear consensus that Schieffer outperformed the other moderators, but there was no such agreement between the two groups about why Schieffer did so well.

Overall, Obama supporters tended to be much more complimentary than McCain's. More Obama supporters on the panel rated Schieffer's performance as excellent (57% vs. 33%). They felt he did enough to fact-check and challenge spin (41% vs. 31%), avoided bias (88% vs. 63%), and was extremely plainspoken (68% vs. 38%), intelligent (58% vs. 28%), and probing (40% vs. 17%).

"McCain supporters preferred Schieffer because he was better than the other moderators," Tyndall said. "Obama supporters approved of him because they thought he did an excellent job."

On the Issues

As for Schieffer's selection of topics, majorities of both groups voted him "just right" on his attention to the social issues of health care (81%), education (78%), abortion (74%) and energy (72%). Among the economic topics, he received majority approval from both groups on federal spending (67%), taxes (65%), housing (59%) and jobs (56%).

McCain supporters were more likely than Obama's to complain about Schieffer's spending too much time on health care (20% vs.4%) and too little time on counterterrorism (74% vs. 45%). Obama's supporters complained about too much time on taxation (26% vs. 11%) -- and too little time on poverty (83% vs. 43%), Social Security (80% vs. 66%) and the environment (62% vs. 38%).

Although Free Press extended outreach to all parts of the political spectrum, Obama supporters considerably outnumbered McCain's, as they have in our three previous panels. To correct for that imbalance, we followed our standard practice of contrasting the ratings of the two groups rather than combining them. Consisting of volunteers rather than a random sample, these results cannot be projected to the population at large.

Republicans are from Fox, Democrats from MSNBC

Nowhere was the divide between the two groups of supporters as stark as in where they chose to watch the debate. Consistently across all four debates this fall, partisans of McCain/Palin have overwhelmingly watched the debate on Fox News Channel (49% on Wednesday night).

The top three channels for Obama/Biden backers have been MSNBC (26%), PBS (20%) and CNN (20%). One thing that both groups of partisans managed to agree on in this final debate was that -- almost unanimously -- their candidate won. Each saw the Schieffer debate as an even more resounding success than the resounding success of previous contests.

For McCain's backers. 91% saw him as the winner (up from 82% for the town hall, 80% for foreign policy debate). For Obama's backers, those numbers were 94%, 92% and 89%, respectively.

Andrew Tyndall and Free Press experts are available to comment on these results. To schedule an appearance, contact Jen Howard at (202) 265-1490 x22 or press@freepress.net.

For more information, visit RatetheDebates.org.

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