Presidential Face-Off

Teenage Girls on Quest for Woman Moderator of Presidential Debates

Three high-school girls have gathered support on petitions seeking a woman moderator for at least one presidential debate, but we’ll likely be stuck with ‘a neutral old white guy.’ Michelle Cottle reports.

Paul J. Richards / AFP / Getty Images

Late Tuesday morning, three teenage girls from Montclair, N.J.—Emma, Sammi, and Elena—trooped into the Washington headquarters of the Commission on Presidential Debates. The trio carried with them a box full of petition pages with more than 118,000 signatures, calling on the commission to choose a woman to moderate at least one of this year’s presidential debates.

Though not yet old enough to vote, the high-school sophomores are appalled that a woman has not moderated a general-election presidential debate since 1992. Determined to correct what they regard as blatant discrimination, the girls launched an online petition campaign in May through in the hopes of swaying the commission’s 2012 choices.

Part of what concerns the equality-minded teens is the symbolism. “It's necessary that our country sees a woman in this prominent position, being visible on the political stage, asking the questions,” explains 16-year-old Elena Tsemberis in an email to the Beast. “Having a female moderator at the debate will visibly show that women are being considered in the election process.”

But there is a practical policy concern as well, notes Tsemberis. “A female moderator would be able to add a new perspective to the debates and touch on topics that are salient for women in this country, like reproductive rights, inequality in the workplace, and how the economy impacts women and their families.”

Of course, this is precisely why having a woman in the moderator’s chair unnerves the campaigns, says debate expert Allan Louden, chair of the communications department at Wake Forest University.

Campaigns don’t want a new perspective, says Louden. What campaigns want is a moderator who is boring, predictable, and safe. That means sticking with what has become the norm: “a neutral old white guy.”

Any deviation from the status quo risks shifting the spotlight onto the moderator, notes Louden. This, in turn, would bring tremendous pressure to bear on that individual to live up to external expectations, perhaps leading to tougher questions, more controversial subjects, or showboating to keep things lively. Bottom line, says Louden: “If they get moderators who bring a little flash to it, the campaigns have a tendency not to want that. They like to control all the factors.”

And if the commission can’t get the campaigns to sign off on a moderator—no mean feat in these hyperpoliticized times—the whole process falls apart.

It is perhaps no surprise then that Emma, Sammi, and Elena’s petition drive has met with a chilly reception from the debate commission. It has ignored the girls’ requests to chat with its executive director, Janet Brown (who did not respond to The Daily Beast’s interview request). Brown’s comments in the media have been variously dismissive and defensive. When the girls showed up at the commission’s office Tuesday, they and their petition were turned away by building security.

Undeterred, the trio already has another petition underway, calling on the Obama and Romney campaigns to come out in support of a woman moderator. Just a week old, the petition has already amassed 56,000 supporters.

The girls’ crusade also has drawn the attention of women’s-rights groups such as Ultraviolet, cofounded this winter by liberal activist and former DNC staffer Nita Chaudhary. Ultraviolet launched its own petition drive in support of Emma, Sammi, and Elena, collecting an additional 250,000 signatures. And Chaudhary is very outspoken about what she sees as an unacceptable situation. “When girls who are 15, 16, in high school don’t see women being elevated to top roles, whether in journalism or politics more broadly, that sends a message that they can’t achieve that.” Whatever the practical challenges it’s grappling with, charges Chaudhary, “the commission should be ashamed.”

Time, however, is running out. The commission is set to announce its chosen moderators this month.

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Before that happens, Louden thinks the Romney campaign could use this issue to score some points—to push back a bit against the “war on women” narrative the Obama campaign is peddling. Romney should call for PBS’s Gwen Ifill to moderate, suggests Louden. As a black woman, Ifill would of course be “a statement,” he says. But because she’s a veteran of multiple vice-presidential debates, he adds, she offers much of the security of the status quo. “She’s predictable. She’s heavily researched. She has a track record.”

Just think of what would happen if Romney came out and said, “I’m for her,” posits Louden. As political moves go, he notes, it would be “marvelous.”

Elena, Emma, and Sammi would surely agree.