TIME'S UP 2020

Status Report: Debate Moderators Still Silent on Critical Issues

Changing Culture, Changing Laws & Policy, Equity, Federal Policy, Power, Safety, TIME'S UP 2020

This summer, ahead of the first debate, TIME’S UP combed through 123 primary debates from 1996 and 2016 and uncovered a troubling pattern: moderators were not asking the questions that matter to the U.S. electorate, which is majority female and increasingly diverse. 

But what has changed since 2016? Has today’s political climate had an impact on questions moderators are asking the candidates so far in 2019? A new analysis of the first four primary debates in 2019 sought to find out. 

Sadly, we found that not much has changed. Out of more than 150 questions asked during four presidential primary debates, we found only: 

  • Two questions about the pay gap
  • Zero questions about paid leave
  • Zero questions about child care
  • Zero questions about sexual harassment

While these four issues have been top of mind for decadesnow more than ever, voters are demanding answers. It has been two years since the #MeToo hashtag went viral, and millions of women have come forward with stories of sexual harassment and gender discrimination at work. Others have turned their pain into action and joined our fight for safe, fair, and dignified workplaces for women everywhere.

There are reasons to be optimistic that tomorrow’s debate will be different. All of the moderators will be women, making it the first debate moderated by more than two women since 1996. According to our previous report, women moderators asked six of the eight substantive questions on these topics between 1996 and 2016.  

The representation of women at the moderators’ table this week is a step in the right direction. But let us be clear: sexual harassment, child care, pay equity, and paid leave are not “women’s issues.” These are cross-cutting issues that affect nearly everyone: Whether you’re a working parent unable to access quality, affordable child care; a domestic worker facing sexual harassment on the job; or a U.S. soccer player facing pay discrimination. 

Millions of women have broken their silence on these issues.  It’s time for the debate moderators to do the same. 


We manually coded references to childcare, sexual harassment, pay equity, and paid leave, and recorded all questions that moderators asked about those four topics. Using full transcripts of the last four Democratic primary debates (provided by CNN.com), we counted only substantive questions asked by moderators, excluding follow-up questions. When the same question was immediately repeated to multiple candidates, we counted it once (for example, if a moderator asked a question of Candidate A, then immediately asked Candidate B and Candidate C to answer the same question, we counted only one question total).