With the stakes so high for their town meeting-style debate tonight, the campaigns of President Bush and Senator John F. Kerry employed teams of specialists to negotiate terms designed to prevent partisans from being among Missourians who will ask the questions at Washington University in St. Louis.
Screened and selected by the Gallup Organization, a group of more than 100 residents of the St. Louis area will be the on-site audience. Many who will participate have said they are leaning toward -- but are not committed to -- either major candidate, said Frank Newport, editor in chief of The Gallup Poll. In the parlance of political polling, these are known as "soft leaners."
Under terms agreed to by the campaigns, those chosen will submit questions earlier in the day to Charles Gibson, the debate's moderator and co-anchor of ABC's "Good Morning America." Gibson is one of the moderators chosen for the four debates by the Commission on Presidential Debates, the nonpartisan organization that has sponsored and produced presidential debates before each of the last four elections. During the 90-minute debate at Washington University, roughly 20 selected audience members will be called on by Gibson to ask questions.
Gibson is scheduled to meet with the audience members beforehand today "at an off-site venue to review their questions and attach faces to names," said Paul G. Kirk Jr., cochairman of the debates commission.
Gibson's responsibility, Kirk said, will be to select not only questions that cover a range of subjects but that are also split about evenly between domestic and foreign policy issues.
Newport said his organization has plenty of experience in selecting neutral participants for this type of format. Gallup has assembled town meeting debate audiences in each of the last three presidential elections, he said, including four years ago from the same St. Louis market for a debate between Bush and Al Gore at Washington University.
The campaigns approved the screening questionnaire used by Gallup to select the audience, Newport said, but they had no input in the selection process itself. "The campaigns have no idea who the participants are or the questions they're dealing with," Newport said.
Assembling the pool of participants, Gallup used a poll-like "random probability sample, using screening criteria to get to uncommitted voters," Newport said. "We would then introduce the idea that we are interested in inviting them." To be considered, voters had to be "uncommitted in the sense that they are either truly undecided or can be leaning to one candidate or another but there's a chance they can change their mind," Newport said.
"We don't know exactly how likely they are to vote for a particular candidate. But we ask them if there's a chance they might vote for the other candidate or if they are absolutely certain they would not consider changing," he said. "If they say they are certain, we thank them and terminate the interview."