Last Chance for LGBT Questions in the Presidential Debate?

If candidates are going to be asked about LGBT issues, the Tuesday night town hall with President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney would seem to offer the right time and place.

BY Julie Bolcer

October 16 2012 9:52 AM ET

Will tonight be the night the presidential candidates discuss LGBT issues?

President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will meet today for their next debate, the second-to-last installment in a high-stakes series that could determine the outcome of the close race. While the debates always carry elements of unpredictability, viewers will once again watch with anticipation for an explicit mention of LGBT concerns.

The expectations are grounded in the year’s historic developments. An incumbent president endorsed marriage equality for the first time, drawing a sharp distinction with his Republican challenger. The Supreme Court is reviewing challenges to the Defense of Marriage Act, while voters in four states will decide marriage-related ballot initiatives next month, when a pro-equality measure could win a popular vote for their first time. Although national polls show that voters remain about evenly divided on marriage equality, more and more Americans of all political parties support basic LGBT rights, including the workplace protections in the long-stalled Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

Despite those factors, the last two debates brought no specific discussion of LGBT topics. President Obama mentioned the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” near the end of his first meeting with Romney in Denver, and last week in Kentucky, Vice President Joe Biden and Congressman Paul Ryan talked on the relevant point of how their personal faith informs their public roles. The final presidential debate next week in Florida will be devoted to foreign policy with emphasis on the Middle East, and while questions about LGBT human rights such as asylum could be in order, the town hall discussion in New York tonight would seem to offer a prime opportunity.

Unlike the other debates, the town hall format invites questions from the audience. The style was introduced in 1992, the last time a woman, Carole Simpson of ABC News, moderated a presidential debate. This year the moderator is Candy Crowley, chief political correspondent for CNN. She will meet with the audience members Tuesday morning at the debate venue, Hofstra University on Long Island, to hear their proposed questions. Crowley and her team will then decide which questions to include, according to Politico, and the audience will be quarantined from the press and the campaigns as they await the debate start at 9 p.m.

Following comments in which she foresaw an active role for herself, Crowley has faced pressure from both campaigns to limit her moderating. She said on Monday that she fully intended to pose follow-up questions in the hope of advancing the discussion, while she and her team would work “to figure out as broad of a range we can get to” for the questions.

“I'm trying to just know what the facts are, what the positions are, so that when something comes up that maybe could use a little further explanation,” she told her colleague Wolf Blitzer. “It might be as simple as, ‘But the question, sir, was oranges and you said apples. Could you answer oranges?’ Or it might be as simple as, ‘But, gee, how does that fit with the following thing?’”

The audience is composed of roughly 80 undecided or uncommitted voters from Nassau County, an affluent area adjacent to New York City. Polling organization Gallup selected the participants by surveying the community, which is known as one of America’s first suburbs. Although Nassau County was long a Republican stronghold, registered Democrats now outnumber Republicans there, and Obama won the area by more than eight points in 2008.

New York is the only state with marriage equality to host a presidential debate this season, but whether the issue is settled law or top of mind would seem to depend on the individual questioner. Last year, in the lead-up to the passage of the legislation in the Republican-controlled state Senate, polling indicated that majorities of voters in Nassau County favored the measure. The Roman Catholic Church maintains a strong presence in the area, but according to a national Gallup poll in May, Catholic voters sit at the overall average in their views on marriage equality, with 51% in favor and 47% opposed. The same poll found 50% of Americans in favor and 48% opposed, with 65% of Democrats, 57% of independents, and 22% of Republicans in support.

Analysts consulted by The Advocate said another issue ripe for conversation in the suburban community is bullying, whether in the context of LGBT students or the more general topic of nondiscrimination. Even non-LGBT-specific questions could present the candidates with the opportunity to provide an inclusive answer, particularly in the town hall setting, where they seek to establish a personalized connection with voters. And, of course, LGBT audience members could identify themselves as such when asking a question about any topic, which adds to the potential for surprises.

One of the most memorable exchanges of the primary season occurred during a Republican debate when an openly gay soldier was booed by audience members at the Fox News/YouTube debate as he asked about “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal. None of the nine candidates onstage defended the service member against the jeers, an absence of words that became its own statement.

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