The experience of taking the political hot seat, straight from the source
More than one month of preparation came to a head for Fox Business hosts Trish Regan and Sandra Smith at last week’s Republican undercard debate. The duo not only made history – they were the first female pair to moderate a presidential debate – but received strong ratings, too.
Especially after the backlash following the CNBC Republican debate in October, many would think there’s a lot of pressure to perform. But it was adrenaline, not fear, that was coursing through veteran journalists Smith and Regan’s veins before debate time.
“It’s not nervousness,” Regan said. “It’s a concentration, a focus, an energy.”
Of course, they had a few days for this excitement to build up. Unlike the candidates, who often fly into the debate’s host city on the day of, Regan, Smith and their co-moderator Gerald Seib from The Wall Street Journal arrived in Wisconsin on Sunday, and after getting a tour of the Milwaukee Theatre, they quickly went to work in their designated news room.
All three spent the day of the debate, plus the two days before, holed up in the workroom, doing much of what they had done for several weeks prior in New York City: reading the news, rewriting questions and researching economic policy.
In that pre-debate prep period, neither Smith nor Regan came face-to-face with the candidates. All the moderators and the candidates get ready in separate dressing rooms, but interaction between the two parties isn’t forbidden – it just didn’t happen this time around.
The lack of contact went on long before the moderators and the candidates arrived in Milwaukee – Regan said that they didn’t communicate with any of the campaigns before debate time, either, in order to “protect” the debate process and have the most unbiased and impactful night they could.
The room may have been buzzing, but when those candidates stepped on stage, things got serious quickly. As Regan said, “When they’re on camera, the stakes are pretty high,” and the candidates turned it on quickly. And for Smith, it was that initial eye contact, that first handshake, that really got her going.
“We spent all this time prepping for the debate, and thinking of the right questions to ask the right candidates,” Smith said. “When the debate started, that was such a big moment for me. It all became a reality.”
Once the commercials came around, however, the vibe got more relaxed. Candidates hopped off the stage, greeted the moderators they hadn’t seen yet, shook hands and chatted with them before getting back into place. Things were friendly off-camera, and both Regan and Smith insisted that the candidates’ tone was cordial throughout.
“There was a level of mutual respect that I think was important,” Regan said. “And that’s what helps to create a real debate.”
When it came to questions, Regan explained they weren’t trying to throw anyone for a loop, especially considering the dense subject matter at hand: “The ‘gotcha’ stuff just doesn’t work on the economy,” she said.
But while they weren’t going for the shock factor, they wanted their questions to strike the right balance of both fair and tough.
“The way we started that debate, they knew we meant business,” Smith said.
Most importantly, the two were looking for answers. This meant that question construction was key. If something wasn’t worded in the best way, it could send a candidate off on an unnecessary tangent – and because each candidate had an allotted amount of time to answer each question, moderators couldn’t cut them off.
If something did happen, the protocol, Regan said, was that whoever asked the question took responsibility for it. That meant if the candidates got off topic, or started baiting one another, it was up to the asking moderator to rein things in. Luckily for Regan and Smith, things never escalated to the level of serious intervention on the moderators’ behalf – just enough to keep it interesting.
“Did a candidate get off the subject a little bit in some answers? Yes, but you expect that,” Smith said. “That makes it truly a debate.”
Debate night was hardly over after Regan and Smith left the stage. Both stuck around to watch the main debate – Smith in the production room and Regan from backstage – and shot their regular Fox Business shows from Milwaukee the next day. Later on, they got even better news: The debate was cable’s top-ranked program that week.
With a number of debates still on the docket for the 2016 elections, Regan and Smith may be part of a growing number of moderators, but their history-making appearance as the first female duo to host a debate will always separate them from the pack.
As Smith said: “It was a proud moment, and Trish and I really shared in that.”