Martha Raddatz, Anderson Cooper Face Heightened Scrutiny in Sunday’s Presidential Debate

Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Debate
AP Photo/ Evan Vucci

Martha Raddatz and Anderson Cooper should have had it easy.

The last time Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump squared off in a debate, the event was something of a circus. After all, no one had seen these two presidential candidates go head to head on live TV. The on-site crowd, perhaps goosed by a free flow of Anheuser-Busch beverages, made catcalls and reacted verbally despite being cautioned not to do so. An average of 84 million people tuned in to watch across 13 TV networks, a new record in the sixty-year history of televised presidential debates. And only one moderator was available to keep things in check.

Yet when CNN’s Cooper and ABC News’ Raddatz greet viewers tonight at 9 p.m., they will do so in an atmosphere that has become even more charged, and is likely to draw even more intense interest.

You’d think a second-round debate between the two White House hopefuls would pose less of a challenge. Curiosity-seekers should have been sated by the first clash. And given the Republican candidate’s strange social-media reactions and drops in polls after the two met at Hofstra University on September 26, others may well have thought another debate was useless.

The disclosure Friday that Trump made lewd remarks about women to NBC News’ Billy Bush more than a decade ago when the correspondent worked for entertainment-news program “Access Hollywood,” however, has upended perceptions of the race for President. Trump issued a statement and a brusque apology in a short video released at about midnight Saturday, and since that time various Republican stalwarts have revoked their support of his candidacy. Questions also remain about portions of Trump’s tax returns that surfaced in reports from the New York Times suggesting a soured real-estate transaction has allowed him to not pay taxes for years.

Raddatz and Cooper may have expected a watered-down version of the debate NBC’s Lester Holt ran a few days back. Now they have to ride herd on what could easily devolve into televised chaos.

Both anchors – and the TV-news organizations that back them – have a lot at stake, and a sense of competition is tangible. In promos aired Sunday morning, CNN billed the event as “moderated by Anderson Cooper,” making no mention of Raddatz or ABC News.

Cooper is arguably the primetime face of CNN, and may be eager to underscore his TV-news bona fides after securing a new long-term deal with CNN that takes him out of the running to be a co-host with Kelly Ripa on her syndicated daytime program. Raddatz, meanwhile, has many years of experience covering global affairs, the State Department and the White House. Earlier this year, she was formally named co-anchor of ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos,” and may seek to bring her experience with foreign affairs to the surface during this evening’s proceedings.

This debate is set as a “town hall,” and the moderators won’t be the only ones trying to get their voices heard. Half the questions will be asked by people in attendance – voters selected by the Gallup Organization who have yet to commit to a candidate – while the other half are to be based on “topics of broad public interest as reflected in social media and other sources,” according to the Commission on Presidential Debates. The anchors will be expected to lob provocative questions at both candidates even as they prod “regular” folks to do the same – all this, no doubt, while trying to get an equal share of air time.

And there’s also the thorny topic of which anchor will tackle which topic. Having Raddatz question Trump about his statements about women could prove a powerful moment.

The debate could cause other kinds of industry upset, too. NBC is sticking with its regularly scheduled broadcast of “Sunday Night Football,” letting sister outlet MSNBC handle coverage of the debate.

With broadcasts of NFL football experiencing viewer decline in recent weeks, could the nation’s most-watched primetime TV program see an audience dip? When the last debate was televised, ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” saw viewership fall by 36% from the previous week’s broadcast. Raddatz and Cooper have a lot of blocking and tackling ahead of them.