NEW YORK — CNBC reached its biggest audience ever with the third Republican Presidential debate, but paid a price in criticism of how its moderators handled the opportunity to question the candidates.
The Nielsen company said 14 million viewers watched the debate Oct. 28, down from the 24 million who saw the first contest on Fox News Channel in February and 23 million viewers for CNN’s second contest. Still, it’s an extraordinarily high bar: a 2011 debate with GOP candidates on CNBC had 3.3 million viewers, Nielsen said.
This week’s debate also competed against the second game of the World Series.
Like baseball umpires, debate moderators are most noticed when something goes wrong, and Carl Quintanilla, Becky Quick and John Harwood were in the spotlight.
Individual candidates grumbled and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said the moderators’ performance “was extremely disappointing.”
Representatives from all the GOP campaigns plan a private meeting in the next few days to air out complaints about how the debates are being run, said Douglas Watts, a Ben Carson spokesman. Besides the line of questioning, some campaigns are resisting lengthy debates.
The next GOP debate is scheduled Nov. 10, to be shown on the Fox Business Network.
At the outset, Quintanilla asked each candidate a job interview question: “What is your biggest weakness?”
Harwood then said to Donald Trump: “You’ve done very well on this campaign so far by promising to build a wall and make another country pay for it, send 11 million people out of the country, cut taxes $10 trillion without increasing the deficit and make Americans better off because your greatness would replace the stupidity and incompetence of others. Let’s be honest, is this a comic-book version of a Presidential campaign?”
Trump called it “not a very nicely asked question,” and one of Harwood’s NBC News colleagues, Joe Scarborough, called the question “absolutely embarrassing” on MSNBC’s Morning Joe on Oct. 29.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a University of Pennsylvania communications professor and debate expert, said Harwood’s last sentence ruined what could have been a useful question.
“It sounds to the audience as if one is spinning the question in a way that presupposes the candidate’s candidacy is illegitimate,” she said.
Similarly, she said asking to outline a weakness can be easily skirted, because what candidate is likely to give an honest answer?
CNBC officials privately noted that Trump and John Kasich praised the debate in later interviews on the network. CNBC would not comment beyond spokesman Brian Steel’s comment: “People who want to be President of the United States should be able to answer tough questions.”
In subsequent questions, Carson was asked what kind of analysis made him think his flat tax plan would work; Marco Rubio was asked why he wouldn’t “slow down, get a few more things done first” before running for President and whether he hates his job as a Senator; Jeb Bush was asked why his candidacy wasn’t catching on; and Carly Fiorina was asked why Americans should hire her as president when she was fired by Hewlett-Packard.
When Quintanilla asked Ted Cruz whether his opposition to a congressional budget deal showed “that you’re not the kind of problem-solver American voters want,” he exploded.
“The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media,” the Texas Republican said. “This is not a cage match. And look at the questions — Donald Trump, are you a comic book villain? Ben Carson, can you do math? John Kasich, will you insult two people over here? Marco Rubio, why don’t you resign? Jeb Bush, why have your numbers fallen?”
“How about talking about the substantive issues?” Cruz said.
That drew applause, predictable since attacking the media usually plays well with a Republican audience, and led other candidates to join in.
Mike Huckabee objected to Harwood asking him whether Trump had the moral authority to lead the country, and Trump chimed in that it was “such a nasty question.” Trump accused Quick of incorrectly quoting him, and it took her several minutes to prove her point. Quintanilla’s question about whether the federal government should regulate fantasy football fell flat.
“We have $19 trillion in debt, we have people out of work, we have ISIS and al-Qaida attacking us, and we’re talking about fantasy football?” Chris Christie said. Christie on Oct. 29 called debate questions snarky and biased.
Rubio, on Fox News Channel’s Fox & Friends, said many people in the media “privately … believe they’re smarter than the people running, and they can’t wait to show off in front of their buddies by asking some question they think is going to embarrass” candidates. He said candidates prepared for a substantive debate.
“It became irritating,” he said. “You go on a network that specializes in economic news and you get questions like some of the ones that were asked last night, and … real frustration begins to bubble over.”
Debates are, by their nature, designed to draw out differences between candidates. Jamieson said some of the questions were poorly constructed.
“They got it wrong,” she said. “They didn’t get it wrong 100 percent of the time. They got it wrong enough to be problematic.”
(DAVID BAUDER, AP Television Writer)