On Moderating the ‘Greatest Reality Show in America’

Moderators Bill Hemmer and Martha MacCallum talk about what's different this time around.

“It’s the greatest reality show in America,” Fox News’ Bill Hemmer, co-moderator of tonight’s GOP undercard debate along with Martha MacCallum, tells FishbowlDC. And this was before we learned that Donald Trump, in his latest display of histrionics, announced he would not be attending tonight’s debate, setting up a town hall at the same time instead.

But as hosts of the 7 p.m. undercard debate, Hemmer and MacCallum don’t have to worry about all that, and can focus on their group of candidates, their own prep.

“Last time we were the very first debate of the entire series. The world was sort of our oyster,” says MacCallum, describing what has changed for them as moderators this time around. “It was an open book and nothing had been asked in this format, so I do think that keeping it fresh and finding new angles on things is definitely more challenging this time around.”

One of the advantages of watching subsequent debates unfold is that it provides the moderators with more information on candidate style, which helps them figure out what they need to get out of candidates, and how they’re going to do that. “I love crafting these questions,” says MacCallum. “I love thinking about what will make these questions sharper and edgier and kind of force the candidates to answer in a way that maybe they haven’t in the past. Obviously we want them to be honest and forthcoming in their answers, so we try to craft them in a way that will elicit that.”

And if the candidates take the questions to another place entirely, “I think we have to respectfully pull them back and get them to answer the question that is asked,” says MacCallum. “The further you get in this process the more liberty they sometimes take with that, so that’s part of our job. That’s what we’re there to do as moderators, and we will not hesitate to pull them back and get them focused if they start to stray away from the question.”

Hemmer is interested in seeing how candidate energy has changed since the last debate. “I thought the great drama in August is that it was their first time out of the gate. And I thought there were real nerves on behalf of the candidates and rightfully so.”

It’s an interesting tell for him. “I really enjoy seeing the candidates earlier in the day when they come in for their walkthrough. I like to see who’s with them, whether it’s campaign people or family. You start to get a sense of where their head is at the moment. That’s something that I look for.”

And those behind-the-scenes peeks at candidates before and in between the question-and-answer sessions are something he thinks the audience would appreciate as well.

“I know the campaigns would probably never agree to this, but I would broadcast the commercial breaks so you could see the camaraderie between most of them. Not all of them, but most of them. I think that’s always fascinating, and sometimes they’ll go at it with each other on TV but then shake hands during the commercial break. These guys see each other a lot; they’ve spent a lot of time together since August. They’re not strangers. I always think the commercial break is a fascinating time.”