Debate Questions Will Be a Surprise to the Debate’s Organizers
(WASHINGTON) -- The man responsible for selecting the audience members who will grill President Obama and Mitt Romney at Tuesday's town hall debate has no idea what kind of questions the undecided voters will put to the candidates, and that's just the way he likes it.
"The fun part is, we don't ask anything about the questions. We have no idea what they're going to come up with," said Frank Newport, the editor-in-chief of the Gallup Poll, whose organization is responsible for picking the random sample of uncommitted voters who get to ask the next president whatever is on their minds.
After weeks of carefully vetting voters who live near Hofstra University, in Long Island, N.Y., to be included in the audience, what ultimately gets asked and by whom is out off Newport's hands.
"It's the one time we let average people come up with questions. As a pollster is fascinating to hear what is on the minds of voters. We know the kinds of questions journalists ask, but it's always a surprise what average people will ask," he told ABC News.
Those average voters, about 80 of them depending on how many seats the Commission on Presidential Debates, which oversees the debate, decides it can fit in the hall, are a cross section of Nassau County's still undecided voters.
Each audience member was called and asked to participate in a voter survey, without knowing the call might end in an invitation to the debate.
Among the randomly selected voters are the "classically undecided," whose votes remain completely up in the air, said Newport, as well as those "who say 'I lean to one candidate or the other, but I'm still a holdout.'"
Demographically, Newport said, the random sample accounts for making sure the audience is racially diverse, includes Democrats and Republicans, and a mix of men and women.
Each audience member, upon arriving at the debate, writes their question for the candidates on two index cards.
One card is submitted to moderator Candy Crowley and the other is retained. Crowley, a CNN political correspondent, selects questions that make for a mix of diverse topics and questioners.
The other card is read by the audience member, in front of a national television audience, when Crowley calls on that person.
Crowley has said in interviews with CNN that she plans on asking follow up questions. That news reportedly led both campaigns to join forces to petition the commission and ask that only voters ask questions.
The Romney campaign had no comment on the issue of Crowley asking follow-up questions. Neither the Obama campaign nor the Commission on Presidential Debates immediately returned requests for comment.
Tuesday's match-up is a particularly high stakes event for a debate. The candidates are locked in a virtual dead heat, a result in some measure to President Obama's lackluster first debate performance.
Neither candidate has a particularly good reputation of connecting with voters in this setting, and both at times can appear aloof or professorial.
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