POLITICS
04/28/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Debate Analysis: ABC Asked Most Scandal Questions, Obama Was Clear Target

The furor over ABC's Democratic debate last week was not universally shared.

While Obama supporters (and many media critics) decried what they saw as biased, gotcha-style questioning, a vocal minority (mostly Clinton supporters) was unmoved. Where was the media outrage when Hillary was being grilled in past debates? She got it "much much tougher" than Obama did from ABC, Clinton spokesman Jay Carson charged.

This debate over debates had me curious. Was ABC's debate really in a lowly class of its own? Or were Obama backers (inside the press and out) just being overly-sensitive? So I went through each of the four one-on-one contests between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, starting with CNN's debate way back on January 31, and cataloged every question, classifying them as follows:

  • Policy and expertise: In this category, I put any questions about a candidate's policy preferences or legislative record, as well as questions about a candidate's experience ("Neither one of you have ever run a business, so why should either of you be elected to be CEO of the country?").
  • Non-policy questions: Questions focused on politics, including electability and the role of superdelegates, as well as those about campaign management, such as releasing tax records or accepting public financing.
  • Scandal questions: Questions about hot-button, non-policy issues like Jeremiah Wright or Clinton's Bosnia trip. (Note: this category does not include follow-up questions on these issues given to the opposing candidate; ie. Clinton being asked about Wright, or Obama being asked about Bosnia.)
  • This is obviously not a scientific process. I did not factor in the tone of the policy questions, which were often framed as critiques of the candidates and their views (although I found relative parity between Clinton and Obama in this respect). Moreover, for the purposes of this analysis, I'm not taking a position on whether any of the scandal questions were fair or legitimate lines of inquiry.

    That said, I found the results of applying this method surprising. Here are the notable takeaways:

    1) ABC's debate was in a class of its own, with more scandal and non-policy questions than any other. ABC asked the most scandal questions, and both ABC and NBC devoted only half of their questions to policy issues. The CNN debates were dramatically more policy-focused. Here's a breakdown:

    Policy   Non-Policy   Scandal 
    CNN (1/31)    31 3 1
    CNN (2/21)    23 5 2
    NBC 24 17 5
    ABC 32 14 13

    2) Barack Obama has received the overwhelming majority of scandal questions over the course of the four debates, by a margin of 17 to 4. Obama has fielded questions about his "bitter" remarks, his connections to 60s-era radical William Ayers, two questions about flag lapels, two questions about his alleged plagiarism of speeches, three questions on Louis Farrakhan, and eight about Jeremiah Wright.

    Clinton has received only four such questions -- two about her Bosnia trip, one about a photo of Obama in African garb that was linked to her campaign without evidence by the Drudge Report, and one over-the-top inquiry about Bill Clinton ("If your campaign can't control the former president now, what will it be like when you're in the White House?").

    3) Networks 'balanced' scandal questions to Obama by repeatedly asking Clinton about Obama's electability/readiness. In three of the four debates, moderators followed scandal questions to Obama by asking Clinton whether she doubts Obama's electability or experience.

    CNN (2/21): "Are you saying that your opponent is all hat and no cattle? ... Are you saying that Senator Obama is not ready and not qualified to be commander in chief?"

    NBC: "Is your contention in this latest speech that America would somehow be taking a chance on Senator Obama as commander-in-chief?"

    ABC: "[A] simple yes-or-no question: Do you think Senator Obama can beat John McCain or not?"

    Of course, such questions are politically sensitive for Clinton; however they are hardly comparable in degree to scandal questions Obama received. In each case, they essentially provided Clinton an opportunity to expound on why she believes she is better suited to be the Democratic nominee.

    4) The debate famously mocked by Saturday Night Live was actually very favorable to Clinton. In the SNL rendition, CNN's February debate was a mix of aggressive, biting questions to Hillary Clinton and softballs to Barack Obama. In fact, the candidates received identical or virtually identical questions about Cuba policy, immigration, bilingualism, the economy, Iraq, and earmarks. On the other hand, Obama was called out on an apparent shift over Cuba ("[T]hat's different from your position back in 2003. You called U.S. policy toward Cuba a miserable failure, and you supported normalizing relations. So you've backtracked now..."), Clinton was offered multiple questions on Obama's readiness to be commander-in-chief, and Obama was pressed to explain the plagiarism allegations.

    Clinton actually had it much rougher at CNN's earlier one-on-one debate in Hollywood. That was the only debate of the four where Clinton was asked a scandal question while Obama was not. Moreover, Clinton faced three questions on her initial support for the Iraq war ("Why can't you just say right now that that vote was a mistake?"), one question about Sen. Ted Kennedy's endorsement of Obama, and another on the perception of a Bush-Clinton dynasty ("How can you be an agent of change when we have had the same two families in the White House for the last 30 years?").