The Secret Debate Rules

Time’s Mark Halperin managed to get his hands on the Memorandum of Understanding between the Romney and Obama campaigns that governs all three Presidential debates and the Vice-Presidential debate. The contents are a virtual cornucopia of rules designed to make sure that nothing of substance actually happens:

No reaction shots. “To the best of the Commission’s abilities, there will be no TV cut-aways to any candidate who is not responding to a question while another candidate is answering a question or to a candidate who is not giving a closing statement while another candidate is doing so.” TV guys, you so broke this rule.

The town hall will be strictly regulated. In the town hall debate Tuesday, Candy Crowley “shall select the questioners, but she may not ‘coach’ the questioners.” Questioners cannot ad lib their questions. Crowley cannot ask follow-ups. If a questioner tries to as a follow-up, they will cut off his microphone.

No show of hands. This could be because Obama keeps attacking Romney for raising his hand at a Republican primary debate when the candidates were asked whether they’d take a deal that was 10 parts spending cuts to 1 part tax increases. Or it’s just because those questions are inexact and frustrating.

No shout outs. The candidates are forbidden from calling out to a person in the audience unless it’s a family member.

No accessories. Romney is not allowed to bring his PowerPoint or any other “tangible things.”

No direct questions. Obama and Romney aren’t supposed to ask each other stuff, like “What about the Dingell-Norwood bill?

And the rules for tonight’s “Town Hall” Debate specifically state that the moderator isn’t allowed to ask follow-up questions.

Here’s the full memorandum:

The 2012 Debates – Memorandum of Understanding Between the Obama and Romney Campaigns

FILED UNDER: 2012 Election, US Politics, , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. msouth says:

    They didn’t break the cutaway rule, did they? They worked around it by having the screen split and the camera showing both people the whole time? (I’m phrasing these as questions because I didn’t watch live, I just saw tweets like “Doesn’t Obama know it’s split screen?”, which I now understand better! and screen shots).

    Viola! No cutaway!

  2. Tsar Nicholas says:

    If it weren’t for the Yankee game I might have watched tonight’s incipient train wreck.

    A bunch of walking corpses, er, “uncommitted voters,” as selected by Gallup (back over to you, Katie), with a CNN talking head as the moderator (back over to you, Katie), and the Obama campaign unraveling as we speak. Yikes. This really has the potential to turn into a tragicomedy.

    That aside, I’ve not seen the MOUs for prior “town hall” debates, but I have to presume they looked somewhat similar if not substantially identical. Nobody wants the inmates running the asylum. Of course rules in any case are made to be broken.

  3. stonetools says:

    The best addition for a debate? A couple of big computer screens where the media fact check the debaters in real time.
    That will never happen, though.

  4. Hal 10000 says:

    The CPD has completely crossed the line to outright subservience. At some point, we’re going to have to refuse to go along with this nonsense and demand something other than a 90-minute joint campaign commercial.

  5. Jen says:

    I think after the pounding Lehrer got for his doormat performance, Crowley might just do whatever she feels is necessary. A piece on Politico yesterday (I think it was Politico) noted that this was an agreement between the campaigns, and that the moderators weren’t asked to sign on to it. That seems a little odd to me, but I suppose it’s possible.

  6. Neil Hudelson says:

    Ok, so most of the rules are ridiculous, but whatever, I get it.

    However: No direct questions? Really?

  7. sam says:

    Candy Crowley “shall select the questioners, but she may not ‘coach’ the questioners.” Questioners cannot ad lib their questions. Crowley cannot ask follow-ups. If a questioner tries to as a follow-up, they will cut off his microphone.

    My understanding is that Ms. Crowley has said, “Bullshit.”