Time’s Up on Debates Without Diversity

In a new report, TIME’S UP analyzed the gender and racial diversity of moderators and topics in 132 presidential debates and town halls between 1996 and 2016—and found that such public political stages remain overwhelmingly white and male.

According to the study’s findings, gender representation is steadily increasing—56 percent of debates studied had at least one-woman moderator—but racial representation remains at a standstill. While Rachel Maddow and Savanah Guthrie’s appearances at Wednesday’s Democratic debate marked the 13th and 14th time more than one woman has moderated, the moderator’s table still looked much like it did at 86 percent of previous debates, with no woman of color pulling up a seat.

Racial representation across gender at debates and political town halls needs improvement: 73 percent of debates do not have a moderator of color at all, and while Latinx and Asian populations are the fastest-growing in the country, 93 percent of debates haven’t featured a Latinx moderator, and no moderator within the last 20 years has publicly identified as Asian American.

This widespread lack of representation doesn’t just impact the optics of political debates—it also creates a lack of information. Moderators play a crucial role shaping the questions that get stage time, and out of over 4,000 questions from the debates TIME’S UP studied, only eight discussed “women’s issues” like child care, equal pay or paid leave.

Pressing issues like abortion have been noticeably absent from conversations at previous debates, and sexual harassment has never been spoken of on the stage. Only six debate questions in the last 20 years have focused on women’s rights issues outside of reproductive rights—and women asked all of them. With Maddow and Guthrie at the helm last night, the debate marked the third time in two decades that candidates were asked about closing the pay gap. Based on the data, that’s not a coincidence.

These disparities inspired Jennifer Klein, the Chief Strategy and Policy Officer at TIME’S UP, to launch this latest research project. The TIME’S UP team hopes their analysis will also inspire future questions about sexual assault policies and paid maternal leave—two topics that have never been asked of candidates in a presidential debate.

“We are missing issues that are really important to working families and to women in particular,” Klein told Ms. “These are important and basic questions that families face every day.”  

Last night’s debate was uniquely gender-focused: Without being asked, for example, many candidates brought up affordable child care. But even when remarkable attention is paid to these issues, the proposals candidates suggest are vague and unspecific. These conversations aren’t new in feminist circles, but candidates still don’t know enough about them.

Klein thinks the long history of ignoring these issues on debate stages is what facilitates that lack of concrete action. “When they’re not asked about them, it’s less on their minds that they need to have an adequate response,” she explained. “If people start asking and people being, you know, first and foremost, the people who are asking questions at debates that will spur candidates to think hard about these issues.”

This spring, the Democratic National Committee began requiring at least one-woman moderator at each democratic debate. Klein also wants networks to remain cognizant of varying moderator choices and topic questions and take steps to ensure that moderators and topics reflect the majority female and increasingly diverse American electorate.

“We don’t see debates as a political exercise as much as a civic exercise.” Klein clarified. “These issues should be a concern to voters no matter who the candidate is and what party they are from.”


Rachel Kennedy is an Editorial Intern at Ms. and Associate Opinion Editor for The Daily Princetonian. A Bostonian by birth and a feminist by choice, she hopes to empower women by sharing their stories. She is particularly interested in covering maternal healthcare, women activists, pop culture, and politics. Rachel currently studies History, Journalism, and African American studies at Princeton University.