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Presidential debate moderators are in play too

us presidential election Updated: Sep 27, 2016 00:47 IST
Yashwant Raj
Yashwant Raj
Hindustan Times
NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt

NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt will moderate the first scheduled presidential debate on Monday.(AP File)

While Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton try to convince voters as to who is the better candidate in the first of their three face-offs on Monday night, Lester Holt, the moderator, will be quietly wishing he does not do too bad himself. Moderators are in play this election cycle more than ever before in recent years.

Trump has already told moderators not to fact-check him like CNN’s Candy Crowley did with Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate who sought to unseat President Barack Obama in 2012. She was viciously slammed as unfair by Republicans.

Trump, once again, went on to call moderators “unfair”, arguing they are mostly Democrats. “By the way, Lester is a Democrat. It’s a phony system,” he said recently. In fact, Holt is a registered Republican.

But Trump, who has only a nodding acquaintance with facts or none at all, has also said CNN’s Andersen Cooper, who moderates the second debate with ABC News’s Martha Raddatz, has treated him “unfairly” on his network, which the Republican calls the “Clinton News Network”.

The Commission on Presidential Debates, a non-partisan and non-profit privately funded organisation, announced the moderators in early September after checking with, and with the concurrence of, the two campaigns as is the tradition.

Fox’s Megan Kelly, who has had a running battle with Trump, was dropped because the nominee’s campaign didn’t expect her to be fair. And the Clinton campaign pushed back on anyone and everyone from the right-leaning Fox. They may have agreed eventually to Fox’s Chris Wallace, however, because he is a registered Democrat, something he has attributed to staying in Democratic-dominated Washington DC. He is scheduled to moderate the last debate.

All of this, and other more intrusive details of the moderators may be on the table in a race as tight as this — Clinton and Trump are separated only by 2.1 points in the RealClearPolitics average of polls, in favour of the Democrat. And FiveThirtyEight, which predicts outcome using a complex formula based on weighted aggregation of polls, predicts a Clinton win by a slim margin of 3.6 points at 51.8% to Trump’s 48.2%.

The debates will matter, and a lot. And moderators will be fair game.

They will be targeted not only by the Trump campaign, which may have been seen as the pushier and whinier of the two. The Clinton campaign was outraged, and loudly, with TV host Matt Lauer’s failure to fact-check Trump on Iraq during back-to-back town-hall style interviews. He let Trump get away with claiming, falsely, he never supported the Iraq war.

The mind-games got under way, specially from the Trump camp, as soon as the commission announced the four moderators for the three presidential debates, and one for the vice-presidential nominees. It’s time now for the real stuff.

And Holt is the first in the hot seat.