PRESS RELEASE from the Center for Media and Public Affairs
at George Mason University

October 5, 2012
Contact: Katy Davis

Study: Presidential Debaters More Aggressive in 2012

Cut Off Moderator Three Times As Often As In 2008 Debate

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney cut off moderator Jim Lehrer three times as often as Obama and John McCain did in the first presidential debate in 2008, according to a study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University. Despite widespread criticism of Lehrer's questioning, the study also found that his questions were just as tough as they were in 2008.

According to CMPA President Dr. S Robert Lichter, “Lehrer was just as aggressive in his questions as he was four years ago. But the candidates were less willing let him ask them.”

The study found that the candidates cut off the moderator 30 times during the debate, compared to only 10 such interruptions in the first presidential debate in 2008. Neither candidate was mainly to blame; most often the questions dissolved into crosstalk, with both candidates talking over the moderator.

Researchers also examined the questions asked by moderator Jim Lehrer in the first presidential debate in both 2008 and 2012. They looked for “challenge questions” that went beyond asking for information and stimulated debate by probing or pushing the candidates to explain themselves, justify their own positions or challenge their opponent’s positions.

In Denver on October 3, 26% of Lehrer’s questions (7 of 27) challenged Obama or Romney, while 74% were purely informational.

In the first 2008 debate, 21% of Lehrer’s questions (5 of 24) challenged Obama or McCain.

Sample informational question: “What are the major differences between the two of you about how you would go about creating new jobs?” Sample challenge question: “All right. What is the difference? Let’s just stay on taxes. Let’s just stay on taxes for a moment. What is the difference?”


The Center for Media and Public Affairs is a non-profit, non-partisan research organization, which is affiliated with George Mason University. It has monitored every presidential election and every new administration since 1988 using the same methodology.