According to a comprehensive review of the first two presidential debates, Mitt Romney broke the official debate rules more often than Barack Obama, with few major consequences. As the candidates prepare for their final face-off, it’s an open question whether the debate rules are even working.
During the first two debates, Romney posed more direct questions and ran over his allotted time more often, while Obama broke the rules less frequently.
Overall, according to a review of debate infractions by The Nation:
Romney posed eight direct questions, while Obama posed none;
Both candidates made a single reference to a questioner;
Both candidates entered each other’s designated space on two occasions;
Obama was the only candidate to benefit from prohibited applause, when Michelle Obama cheered his remarks on Libya.
Both candidates also routinely ran over their allotted time.
It was not all fouls and fudging, however. Neither candidate ever broke the blanket bans on using notes, props, diagrams or electronic devices, nor the rule against challenging each other to sign “proposed pledges.”
Romney not only broke the rules more often, he also invoked them more to pursue an edge during the debates. That tic was satirized by Saturday Night Live and lamented by conservatives, such as the Times’s Ross Douthtat, who wrote after the second debate that Romney tends to “argue pointlessly with the moderator and his opponents over the rules of order.” While appealing to the moderator can certainly make a candidate look petty, it turns out that the only penalty for infractions mandated in the debate rules is a moderator interruption.
Under Section 5 of the rules, which were negotiated by the campaigns and the debate commission, the moderator is supposed to interrupt and cite the rules when candidates go over time, reference an audience member or use banned props.
Jim Lehrer rarely took that tack in the first debate. While he was roundly criticized on style points, of course, his approach also abdicated the moderator’s technical duty under the rules. At one point, Lehrer even prompted Romney to pose “a question that you’d like to ask the president directly about something he just said.” Since the rules specifically bar the nominees from asking “each other direct questions,” it was quite odd for the moderator to invite such an infraction. Romney carefully replied without technically posing a direct question—he appeared mindful of the rule in the first debate, and did not break it until the feistier town hall session.
By the second debate, of course, Candy Crowley had telegraphed her plan to scrap the ban on her follow-up questions. While more assertive than Lehrer, she rarely cited the rules and broke other rules for the moderator.
Crowley spared both candidates from chiding on a range of violations, and patroling time violations strictly was implausible, given that 122 total interruptions occurred in ninety minutes. But for Crowley, it is evident that not all rules were created equal. In the significant exchange over the Libya attack, Crowley gave Romney the ultimate political yellow card by fact-checking him with 70 million people watching. But her firm correction on a pivotal point, and repeated at the president’s request, technically violated the rules’ prohibition against a moderator commenting on “the answers of the candidates during the debate.”