Counting the Rule Violations at the Town Hall Debate

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
Oct. 17 2012 12:33 AM

The Town Hall Debate Was One Giant Rule Violation

Everyone got in on the rule-breaking action during Tuesday's town hall debate at Hofstra University
Everyone got in on the rule-breaking action during Tuesday's town hall debate at Hofstra University

Photograph by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images.

Debate rules be damned. 

Josh Voorhees Josh Voorhees

Josh Voorhees is a Slate senior writer. He lives in Iowa City. 

One of the storylines heading into Tuesday night's debate was whether moderator Candy Crowley would throw out the debate rule book and deliver on her promise of asking follow-up questions whenever she saw fit. Before the night's first segment was over, it was clear that not only would she, but so would the two men onstage. Not too long after that, so, too, would many of 80-odd self-identified undecided voters in the Hofstra auditorium.

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Before we pull out our copy of the debate rules—as authored by both the Obama and Romney campaigns but never signed onto by Crowley, we should note—let's state what now appears obvious in hindsight: It was a little silly for everyone (ourselves very much included) to get so worked up about the idea that a memorandum of understanding signed by both camps would somehow dictate the performance of Crowley, or the candidates for that matter. The first debate in Denver made it clear that moderators were likely to become a major plot point in each debate narrative, and that it would be pure fantasy to assume that anyone without a mute button or buzzer of some kind would be able to keep Romney and Obama squarely within their alloted response time.

All that said, the town hall debate turned into one giant string of rules violations. Moderator follow-ups? Check. Moderator rephrasing of audience questions? Check. Candidate-to-candidate questions? Check. Candidate A wandering into Candidate B's designated space? Check. Heck, the audience even got in on the rule-breaking action, bursting into laughter on one occasion and applause on another, in clear violation of what debate organizers requested from them.

Without further ado, below you'll find our best effort at a nearly exhaustive—and somewhat chronological—list of the clear-cut rules violations we saw unfold on Long Island. (We'll continue to update as we spot more.) If it's not yet clear, we plan on being sticklers about the rules if for no other reason than to show just how far the proceedings veered from the official script.

—Violation: Late Start. Violator: Candy Crowley. Rule: Article 1, Section C: "Each debate shall begin at 9 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time." Explanation: Elsewhere in the memorandum (Article 5, Section A), the debate's start time is defined by the beginning of the moderator's opening statement. Crowley uttered her first word at 9:01 p.m. ET on our TV set, so even accounting for a few-second delay, we have our first violation before the debate technically even got under way.

—Violation: Entrance Foul. Violators: Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Rule: Article 9, Section A, Subsection 3: "... the candidates shall enter the stage simultaneously, from opposite ends of the stage, upon a verbal cue by the moderator after the program goes on air, proceed to center stage, shake hands, and proceed directly to their positions." Explanation: It wasn't possible to tell if both men stepped out onstage at the same time because the camera was zoomed in on Obama, but nonetheless the two men both took their time making their way to the starting blocks. Obama paused to give a wave to the crowd while Romney, after reaching his seat, stepped forward to offer his own wave.

Violation: Referencing audience members. Violators: Obama and Romney. Rule: Article 5, Section C: "No candidate may reference or cite any specific individual sitting in a debate audience (other than family members) at any time during a debate." Explanation: This one, too, went out the window early with Romney asking the night's first questioner, Jeremy Epstein, what year he would graduate college. Obama later got in on the shout-out action too, telling another questioner that his green energy agenda was "going to help Jeremy get a job."

—Violation: Failure To Stay Within Time Limit. Violator: Obama and Romney. Rule: Article 7, Section A, Subsection 7: "The answer segments will be structured as follows: A question is asked of Candidate A. That candidate will respond to the question for up to 2 minutes. Candidate B will then have 2 minutes to respond. Following those initial answers, the moderator will invite the candidates to respond to the previous answers, beginning with Candidate A, for a total of 2 minutes, ensuring that both candidates receive an equal amount of time to comment." Explanation: There wasn't a single time during the entire debate by our count that either Romney or Obama managed to stay within their initial two minutes, routinely taking an extra 30 or 45 seconds to carry on with their response.

—Violation: Failure To Enforce Time Limit. Violator: Crowley. Rule: Article 5, Section I, Subsection 1: "The moderator shall open and close the debate and enforce all time limits." Explanation: See above.

Bonus Violation: Failure To Remind Candidates of Time Limit. Violator: Crowley. Rule: Article 5, Section I, Subsection 1 (cont.): "Where a candidate exceeds the permitted time for comment, the moderator shall interrupt and remind both the candidate and the audience of the expiration of the time limit and call upon such candidate to observe the strict time limits that have been agreed upon herein." Explanation: Crowley repeatedly let both men carry on over their alloted time limits and, on the few occasions she did step in to let them know they were running long, the candidates continued nonetheless. She also repeatedly failed to offer reminders to the audience that both men were blatantly ignoring the countdown clocks scattered around the auditorium.

—Violation: Moderator Moderating. Violator: Crowley. Rule: Article 7, Section C, Subsection 4: "The moderator will not ask follow-up questions or comment on either the questions asked by the audience or the answers of the candidates during the debate or otherwise intervene in the debate except to acknowledge the questioners from the audience or enforce the time limits, and invited the candidate comments during the 2 minute response period." Explanation: Crowley made it clear early and often that when the candidates responded to a question about oranges with an answer about apples, she wouldn't hesitate to step in. By our count, did so during each and every response segment except the final one to ask some version of a follow-up. Her first was to Romney about what he would do to address long-term unemployment in the short term; her last was to Obama about if he could bring back jobs that have been outsourced.

Violation: Improper Identification. Violator: Crowley. Rule: Article 5, Section G: "President Obama shall be addressed by the moderator as 'Mr. President' or 'President Obama.' Governor Romney shall be addressed by the moderator as 'Governor' or 'Governor Romney.'" Explanation: During Crowley's first (illegal!) follow-up, she addressed Romney as "Mr. Romney," a mistake she made two other times during the event.

—Violation: Failure To Provide Equal Time. Violator: Crowley. Rule: Article 7, Section A, Subsection 7: "Following those initial answers, the moderator will invite the candidates to respond to the previous answers, beginning with Candidate A, for a total of 2 minutes, ensuring that both candidates receive an equal amount of time to comment. In managing the two-minute comment periods, the moderator will not rephrase the question or open a new topic." Explanation: This was another repeated violation on Crowley's part, with the moderator rarely if ever striking a (admittedly impossible) 50-50 balance when whichever man responded first ended up running out most—if not all of—the alloted 2 minutes.

—Violation: Rephrasing the question. Violator: Crowley. Rule: Article 7, Section A, Subsection 7: "In managing the two-minute comment periods, the moderator will not rephrase the question or open a new topic." Explanation: The moderator managed to check this box too, thanks to an audience member's question about gas prices. During the back-and-forth that followed, she stepped in with a line that made it clear she was rephrasing things: "Mr. President, let me just see if I can move you to the gist of this question, which is, are we looking at the new normal? I can tell you that tomorrow morning, a lot of people in Hempstead will wake up and fill up and they will find that the price of gas is over $4 a gallon."

—Violation: Leaving Pre-Designated Area. Violators: Obama and Romney. Rule: Section 9, Article C, Subsection 4: "Each candidate may move about in a pre-designated area, as proposed by the Commission and approved by each campaign, and may not leave that area while the debate is under way. The pre-designated areas of the candidates may not overlap." Explanation: While the designated areas weren't clear on the stage, anyone watching could see both men used the entire floor, often traveling across the room to get closer to whichever audience member was asking the question.

Violation: Posing a Direct Question to the Other Candidate. Violator: Romney. Rule: Article 5, Section E: "The candidates may not ask each other direct questions during any of the four debates." Explanation: Romney was the biggest offender on this one, (at least) twice turning to the president to pose a direct question. The first one: "Mr. President, have you looked at your pension?" And the second: "You said in the Rose Garden the day after the attack, it was an act of terror. It was not a spontaneous demonstration, is that what you’re saying?"

Violation: Showing Audience Members on TV. Violator: The control room. Rule: Article 9, Section A, Subsection 5: "... in no case shall any television shots be taken of any member of the audience (including candidates' family members) from the time the first question is asked until the conclusion of the closing statements, if any." Explanation: On more than one occasion, viewers at home were treated to an over-the-shoulder shot of a candidate that provided a clear view of the faces of audience members.

—Violation: Audience Reaction. Violators: The crowd. Rule: Article 9, Section A, Subsection 7: "All members of the debate audience will be instructed by the moderator before the debate goes on the air and by the moderator after the debate goes on the air not to applaud, speak, or otherwise participate in the debate by any means other than by silent observation, except as provided by the agreed upon rules of the October 16 town hall debate." Explanation: In addition to a few answers questioners gave to the candidates—seriously, gentleman, her name is Lorraine—the audience got in on the action in two big ways: The first was when they broke into laugher after Obama joked that his pension wasn't as big as Romney's; the second was after Crowley stepped in to fact-check a dispute about the president's reaction to the Benghazi consulate attack. (Somewhat surprisingly, the 21-page memo makes no mention of fact-checking by the moderator, so it's unclear whether that was a violation or not.)

Violation: Failure To Warn Audience. Violator: Crowley. Rule: Article 7, Section 1: After any crowd reaction, "the moderator shall instruct the audience to refrain from any participation in the debate. ..." Explanation: Crowley let both the laughter and applause pass without reminding the crowd they were supposed to be keeping quiet.

—Violation: Late Finish. Violator: Crowley, Obama, Romney, the crowd, the stage crew, the ticket takers, and anyone else who was within 100 yards of this thing. Rule: Article 5, Section A: "Each debate shall last for ninety (90) minutes, with the time commencing from the start of the moderator's opening to the conclusion of the moderator's closing." Explanation: By our count, the time between Crowley's first word of the night and her last clocked in at closer to 1 hour, 40 minutes.

All right, there you have it (at least until you fill the Comments section or your Twitter account with any others we missed). Consider the above our penance for being among those who fell victim to the What Will Crowley Do? narrative. Turns out the answer was "her job."  We hope we've learned our lesson.

***Follow @JoshVoorhees and the entire team @slatest on Twitter.***

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