Presidential debates are a kind of job interview. The moderator asks a question on behalf of voters, and the candidates answer those questions — and these debates usually try to follow this model.
But Monday night, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump had an entirely different dynamic, and that manifested in voters not actually having their questions addressed. In fact, most of their time was spent not answering questions at all.
Our analysis shows that about 60 percent of the debate was spent talking about things that were either completely unrelated to the question or maybe just tangentially related. Trump spoke far more words than Clinton, but only one in three words was used to actually address the topic at hand, compared to about half of Clinton’s words.
This is a quick overview of the debate. We’ve darkened the sections where Clinton and Trump actually answered the questions they were asked.
When Trump derailed a segment, Holt didn't rein it in
Now, deciding whether a line answers a question or not can be a tricky exercise. But moderator Lester Holt asked very direct questions seeking specific answers, and the candidates often failed to deliver.
And reading through the debate transcripts with these answers highlighted, it's clear that Trump mostly tries to steer the conversation off-course. He often addressed questions with accusations, and Clinton responded to the accusations — sometimes at Holt’s encouragement, but often not. And those segments spiraled out of control, sometimes taking the next segment with it, as both Clinton and Trump continued talking about the previous issue. It's as if Holt's specific questions didn't matter and only served as an outside indicator that they needed to move on to another broad topic.
To be fair, this isn’t to say there wasn’t a meaningful exchange in those rogue moments. But it does mean that we never had an actual exchange about Clinton’s plan to raise taxes on the ultra-wealthy and Trump’s plan to lower it. And on other subjects, like homegrown terrorism, it was difficult for voters to get a deeper sense of what the candidates plan to do. Clinton had spurts of talking about policies that answered the questions, but Trump would usually derail the conversation — and Holt often allowed the debate to go wherever that derailment took them.
Here’s an interactive that lets you explore where candidates stayed on topic — and where they spiraled out of control: