The Debate Questions? Fair

There’s an early consensus that, in the words of Jonathan Chait, “Obama enjoyed friendly questions from an audience that obviously leaned left” in the second debate. Naturally, conservatives agree. I thought the questions favored Obama during the debate, but a second look convinced me that it’s wrong: the questions were about as fair as it gets.

From the “Town Hall” audience questions, I count three that were solidly pro-Obama and one that was somewhat pro-Obama; three solidly pro-Romney and one somewhat pro-Romney; and three neutral ones.

So, why the false impression? I think it was because of the sequence; the three great questions for Obama were the third, fourth, and fifth questions overall, and there was no similar sustained block of pro-Romney questions to break the illusion. What’s more, Obama was doing a better job overall, which made good Romney questions seem less biting and good Obama questions more obvious. But at any rate, it was an illusion.

Okay, the breakdown (transcript here). I’ll start with the great ones for Obama: one that challenged Romney to detail which deductions he would get rid of for middle class voters; one on the topic of pay equity for women; and one which challenged Romney to differentiate himself from George W. Bush. Now, there’s really no excuse for Romney not having a great answered prepared for the two challenge questions — he did not — but I think it’s fair to call those questions which Barack Obama should have been happy to hear.

But they were matched by three great ones for Romney. First, an energy question:

Your energy secretary, Steven Chu, has now been on record three times stating it’s not policy of his department to help lower gas prices. Do you agree with Secretary Chu that this is not the job of the Energy Department?

Later, and parallel to the Romney/Bush question, a challenge that Obama’s presidency has been a disappointment:

Mr. President, I voted for you in 2008. What have you done or accomplished to earn my vote in 2012? I’m not that optimistic as I was in 2012. Most things I need for everyday living are very expensive.

As with Bush/Romney, that’s one that sets up well for a strong comeback, but it still frames the Obama presidency exactly how Romney and Paul Ryan have often framed it.

The third one was the Libya question:

We were sitting around talking about Libya, and we were reading and became aware of reports that the State Department refused extra security for our embassy in Benghazi, Libya, prior to the attacks that killed four Americans. Who was it that denied enhanced security and why?

Not only could Romney not have asked for better wording, but he also should have been thrilled that there was only one foreign policy question asked the whole time — and that one question was on Libya. Of course, in the event, this question was Romney’s most talked-about botch, but it wasn’t because of the question.

I scored two questions as marginally useful, one for each campaign. The gun control question probably was asked by a liberal (the question was about banning “assault weapons”), but it was asked as a challenge to Obama, and it’s generally a topic which Republicans would much rather see raised. On the other hand was the question on immigration, which is a topic thought in this cycle to favor Democrats. So one question each which somewhat favored the candidate.

And three questions seemed neutral to me. The final question was about misperceptions of the candidates, and was clearly neutral. Then there were two questions about jobs. The very first question was about the bleak outlook for jobs for college graduates; late in the debate one of the undecided voters asked about outsourcing. One could score the overall topic as good for Romney, but given how central jobs is to the campaign, two questions on the topic seems pretty reasonable, and neither was framed in any particular partisan way. “The outsourcing of American jobs overseas has taken a toll on our economy. What plans do you have to put back and keep jobs here in the United States?”

So three great questions for each candidate, one good one for each (although both asked from a liberal point of view), and three neutral ones, albeit two which were basically on turf Romney wants to be on. I’m open to anyone who wants to challenge my characterizations, but I just don’t see it. Whatever the makeup of the undecided voters, the questions Candy Crowley chose from them seemed about as balanced as it could get.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.