TIME’S UP 2020: Four Debate Questions It’s Time the Candidates Answer

TIME'S UP 2020

Graphic explaining the number of questions related to TIME'S UP's issues that moderators asked in presidential debates

New Analysis from TIME’S UP Shows Moderators Are Not Asking the Questions that Matter to Voters in Presidential Primary Debates

Presidential primary debates are an important forum for Americans to learn about the candidates’ policy platforms. At the lectern, presidential contenders share their views on issues that matter to the electorate so that voters are informed and equipped when they cast their ballots. It’s here, on the debate stage, that our nation’s leaders — and our future president — publicly articulate their policy positions in front of millions of voters. And it’s here that candidates must be held accountable.

Viewers at home rely on debate moderators to be their voice, raising questions and concerns on their behalf. But a recent TIME’S UP analysis uncovered the troubling fact that primary debate moderators from 1996 to 2016 did not reflect the American electorate, which is majority female and increasingly more diverse.

This new analysis shows that in addition to lacking diversity, moderators have left crucial issues that matter to women out of the conversation. For fully two decades, moderators have rarely — if ever — asked candidates on either side of the aisle to define their policy positions on paid leave, child care, pay equity, or sexual harassment.

Moderators Haven’t Asked the Right Questions

Paid leave. Child care. Pay equity. Sexual harassment. Each of these four issues matter to voters of all kinds, and each of these issues have concrete public policy solutions that could help address them. So TIME’S UP looked to see how moderators have ensured candidates addressed these issues in past presidential primary debates.

Out of more than 4,000 questions in 123 primary debates from 1996 to 2016, only eight questions directly addressed sexual harassment, child care, equal pay, or paid leave:

  • Four substantive questions about paid leave
  • Two substantive questions about equal pay
  • Two substantive questions about child care
  • Zero questions about policies to address sexual harassment

Demonstrating just how important it is for women to serve as debate moderators, women moderators asked six of the eight substantive questions on these topics.

Four Questions the Moderators Must Ask

Recognizing that these issues are top priorities to voters, in some instances candidates raised these issues themselves, making unprompted references to child care (including universal pre-k and early childhood education) at least 65 times, paid leave or the Family and Medical Leave Act at least 26 times, and pay equity at least 19 times.

But no longer can moderators let candidates get by without addressing these cross-cutting issues in presidential debates. Moderators should ask all contenders serious questions about paid leave, pay equity, sexual harassment, and childcare. By asking these questions of the candidates, moderators can help ensure that these top-of-mind issues to voters get the time and attention they deserve from the candidates seeking to become our next president:

  1. Do you think we’ve gone far enough to address sexual harassment?  What have you done and what will you do to ensure that work is safe, fair, and dignified for women of all kinds?
  2. What is your plan to work with employers to close the pay and opportunity gap for women, in particular women of color, LGBTQ women, and working mothers?
  3. Do you believe that the United States should have mandatory paid family and medical leave and, if so, what is your proposal to make it happen?
  4. How will you ensure that families who need it have access to safe, affordable child care?

Four Issues That Matter to Voters

Sexual harassment is a pervasive problem in need of transformative solutions. Some 85 percent of women report experiencing sexual harassment over the course of their careers, but only six to 13 percent of those who are harassed file a formal complaint. The countless women who have stepped forward during the #MeToo movement have helped shed light on the widespread and far-too-common problems of sexual harassment, assault, and rape. Now, voters expect candidates to work on finding solutions. In fact, 81 percent of voters see sexual harassment in the workplace as a serious problem, and 44 percent characterize it as a very serious problem. What’s more, half (51 percent) of voters say that would not vote for someone who didn’t make addressing sexual harassment a priority.

Pay equity has a significant impact on working women, families, and the U.S. economy. Although women represent half (47 percent) of the U.S. labor force and are increasingly the sole or primary breadwinners in their families, women are paid only 82 cents, on average, for every dollar paid to men.

The gap is even larger for most women of color, where Latinas are paid 54 cents and Black women are paid 62 cents for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men. This gap is estimated to amount to up to half a million dollars over the course of a career.

These disparities have a real, damaging effect. If women received equal pay, the poverty rate for all working women would be cut in half, and the United States economy would produce $512.6 billion more annually.

Women voters overwhelmingly support federal action to strengthen equal pay laws, with 91 percent of women voters agreeing that Congress should enact more robust policies.

Paid leave is a critical policy intervention for working families and especially for working women, who are more likely to take time away from work for caregiving than working men. But the United States has no paid leave policy and, as one of only two countries without mandatory paid maternity leave, is an outlier from the rest of the world. Adopting an effective paid leave plan could help to close the gender wage gap and could add an estimated five million people to the U.S. workforce.

Eighty-four percent of voters support a comprehensive national paid family and medical leave policy that covers all people who work, and support crosses party lines. The vast majority of Democrats (94 percent) and Republicans (74 percent) support a national policy that would cover all working people who need leave to care for a new child, for their own illness, for an ill family member, or for an injured service member.

Childcare is a keystone for children’s development and for working parents’ economic security. But families in the United States are often unable to access quality, affordable childcare. On average, it costs nearly $15,000 per year to provide child care for an infant in a child care center, putting licensed child care out of reach for most families.

And there’s a steep cost to our fractured child care system: childcare breakdowns cause 45 percent of parents to miss work at least once over a six-month period, resulting in $4.4 billion in losses annually.

Voters across the board want better child care policies. In fact, 80 percent of those who voted for Donald Trump and 79 percent of those who voted for Hillary Clinton want the federal government to raise the quality of child care and make it more affordable for all families. And 68 percent of voters agree that public policy “should be designed to help families afford the costs of child care and early learning.”


TIME’S UP analyzed transcripts from 123 primary debates from 1996 to 2016. We sourced the majority of our data from the online database compiled by the American Presidency Project. However, some debate records were not available from the Project, so we pulled a number of transcripts from Democracy in Action’s 2000 and 2004 Race for the Whitehouse sites or LexisNexis searches. Our dataset includes primary debates, undercard debates, radio debates, and town halls and forums. Because moderators play a critical part in shaping all of these public-facing conversations where candidates share their views, we integrated each of these varying types of debates into our analysis.

We coded references to child care, sexual harassment, pay equity, and paid leave, and recorded all questions that moderators asked about those four topics. To do so, we collected and searched all of the transcripts using NVivo’s qualitative analysis software. In addition, we tallied the total number of questions in a sample of the debates from each cycle, and used the averages to reach our conservative estimate of more than 4,000 total questions. To reach our total, 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). In the two town halls included in our analysis (for the Democratic contenders on October 27, 1999 in New Hanover and on December 7, 1999 in Nashua), we counted questions by audience members. For the 2016 main stage debates, we checked our results against The Women’s Debate’s 2016 analysis of debate questions related to women’s issues.

In our analysis, we defined child care, sexual harassment, pay equity, and paid leave broadly. For child care, we coded references to universal pre-k, the Head Start program, and early education. And for paid leave, we coded references to the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), although the Act only provides for unpaid leave.

In our count of questions asked by moderators, we included only questions that spoke directly to one of the four policy areas. We did not include questions about unrelated topics, even if candidates responded by raising one of the four issues. For example, the following question from Brian Williams at the October 30, 2008 Democratic Primary Debate in Philadelphia would not be included, although multiple candidates including Hillary Clinton, Dennis Kucinich, John Edwards, and Chris Dodd referenced universal pre-k or early childcare in their responses:

WILLIAMS: … And Governor Richardson, we’re going to start with you. This is about something called Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. It’s called TIMSS. A number of overseas nations took part in it. It found that overseas students spend an average of 193 days annually in school. The deficit compared to the U.S., where it’s 180 days — over 12 years, that adds up to one-year gap between education in the U.S. and overseas. Do you believe we in this country need to extend the school day and/or extend the school year? And will you commit to it? …

We chose to exclude questions that do not expressly invoke sexual harassment, child care, pay equity, or paid leave because this report is intended to evaluate how and when the moderators have held candidates accountable on these four key issues by asking targeted, meaningful questions and insisting on direct, substantive answers. While we applaud some candidates for speaking about these topics without specific prompting, we believe that moderators should challenge all candidates to define their positions on these issues that affect so many Americans.