Rachel Maddow on Presidential Primary Debates: "We're All Going to Get Complained About"

Courtesy of MSNBC/Charles Ommanney/ Reportage by Getty Images

As the MSNBC host prepares to moderate a Democratic forum in South Carolina on Nov. 6, she asseses the Republican outrage machine, the difference between liberal and conservative media and Bernie Sanders' chances in Iowa and New Hampshire.

The presidential primary season has become a spectacle and a ratings winner with more than 20 million viewers watching GOP matchups on Fox News and CNN and the Democratic debates pulling in more than 15 million viewers on the latter.

And to add further spice to proceedings, the Republican primary debates have become mired in controversy after the RNC announced it would suspend its planned February debate with NBC News and Telemundo in the wake of the controversial Oct. 28 debate on NBCUniversal-owned CNBC.  

On Friday, the Democrats will face questions from MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, who will moderate the First in the South Democratic Candidates Forum from Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina. Sponsored by the South Carolina Democratic party, the event will air live at 8 p.m. ET on MSNBC.

Maddow will interview each of the three candidates — Martin O’Malley, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton — separately. So there probably won’t be any opportunities to incite a "cage match," as Ted Cruz memorably characterized the CNBC debate.

Instead, Maddow will focus on issues including the economy, policing in America and the state of the Democratic party in the red state south. Her goal, she told The Hollywood Reporter, is to make sure the event is "more than just a sequential series of interviews."

"I read a lot of their previous interviews. I’ve read the first Democratic debate transcripts several times. I want them off their talking points, and I want them not to give their stump speeches."

Two days before the event, Maddow was working to pare down 900 questions and boning up on every issue position — and flip-flop. She’ll interview the candidates in descending order based on their standings in the polls. So O’Malley will be first followed by Sanders and then Clinton. "I’m a little bit of a manic in my prep anyway, not to mention a little slow, so to be less than 48 hours out and to have hundreds of questions that I’m still going through is totally typical for me, but also exactly as daunting as it sounds," she said.

Maddow took a break from her debate prep to talk to THR about the implications of Hillary Clinton's enormous lead in the south, that controversial CNBC debate and the difference between her and Glenn Beck.

Are the candidates going to be responding to things the others say in their interviews?

Not to give too much away in terms of how they should prep, but if I’m going to ask the candidates to respond to ways that their opponents have criticized them or called them out, I sort of have to do it for things that have happened outside this forum environment, because otherwise there’s no way that Martin O’Malley can get back onto the stage after he’s finished if Hilary Clinton calls him out on something. And so I don’t want to give her an advantage that I would not be able to give to the other candidates. It may be unavoidable that they’ll respond to candidates who preceded them, but that’s a strategic issue of fairness that I need to try to steer them away from.

Where are the other candidates going to be while their opponents are being interviewed?

I thought about locking them with headphones with white noise in sensory deprivation tanks. [Laughs.] But it’s not realistic. Presumably they’ll be in some sort of green room. They’ll all be able to hear each other. Whether or not they choose to is their decision.

Do you approach Hillary differently because she’s leading the polls?

Hillary Clinton is leading by a margin of 56 points in South Carolina. Granted that’s just one poll, in South Carolina, but that’s where I’m going to be. When you have a race with only three candidates it’s impossible to ignore that sort of lead and that dynamic. It creates the political weather in which issues are elevated into the discussion. You have to accept that as the dynamic in which they’re operating. That said, Bernie is doing great in New Hampshire and he’s doing pretty great in Iowa in some polls. I think anybody who thinks it’s over is wrong because anything could happen and those early state polls are provocative right now.

What have you learned from the debates that will inform how you approach the forum?

I would say two things to that. It is politics as usual for the candidates of either party to make an issue of the process, make an issue of the medium, make an issue of the moderators, to try to litigate that rather than just handle the questions and challenges that arise in a debate or forum context on their own terms. It’s smart politics for any politician to do what Ted Cruz did. And the amazing part about that that I feel has been lost in the sauce about the CNBC debate is that when Ted Cruz went off like a Roman candle on CNBC, he did it in response to a question about his views on the debt ceiling. He was asked about the debt ceiling and his response is, how dare you not ask us about substantive issues? So it’s just regular political theater. That said, in terms of how debates that have gone before are affecting my thoughts about Friday, I try to only ask questions for which I cannot predict how the candidate will answer. I try not to ask questions that they have been asked before. I try not to ask questions that they can twist around into the favorite part of their stump speech. 

Multiple Republican candidates have floated the idea of having openly conservative media personalities moderate debates. You’re a progressive and here you are moderating a forum.

I want Carly Fiorina to suggest me for a Republican debate. If you’re taking Glenn Beck, you at least have to consider me. Think about how much more fun it would be to see me, even if it was just at one of the kid’s tables. This is the South Carolina Democrats doing this and organizing it with the other Southern Democratic parties. They wanted to do an MSNBC forum and I got asked to do it. And I said yes and I’m super happy to be able to do it. But there is something that is a little bit not mirror image between the left and the right and between the two parties on this issue. For me, it’s manifest in the fact that I’ve been trying to get a Hillary Clinton interview for eight years. And I just got my first one last week. I have been trying to get a President Barrack Obama interview for the entire time and have never had an interview with him as president. I spoke to him once when he was a candidate and that’s it. Trying to get access to upper echelon Democrats, to get on-camera interviews with the leading lights in the Democratic party is actually really hard for me. And I don’t think you’ll find anything like that on the Republican side. There isn’t a self identified liberal media bubble in the way that there is a self-contained conservative media bubble on the right. Yes, I’m doing this forum but compare the number of appearances of a top tier candidate like Hillary Clinton on my show and the access that conservative media gets to the Republican party and how central that is to their identification of how they serve the electorate. It feels like a very different game.

Do you think the questions from the CNBC moderators were fair?

I have felt from the very beginning of this that if you took just the questions from the moderators at the CNN debate and the Fox debate and the CNBC debate and you made it blind and you went to any of the Republicans who are complaining about this, they could not tell you which of those questions was asked at which of those debates. They just decided for political reasons that CNBC was going to be fun to blow up about. But they complained about CNN, about it being hot in the room, about it being three hours long. And Mr. Trump said those terrible things about [Megyn Kelly] after the Fox debate and then boycotted Fox News for one of his famous five minute boycotts because he felt it was so terrible. We have a term that we use on the show sometimes, which is 'Pout Rage.' They really enjoy the pouting and the outrage. But I don’t feel their pain on this subject. You can like or not like the way any of these networks have handled any of these debates, but there’s nothing that CNBC did that is materially different from anything that has been done in any other debate. We’re all going to get complained about. It’s part of politics.

MSNBC has had some ratings challenges lately and NBC News chairman Andy Lack is making programming changes. How do you feel about how your show is doing?

We’re always paying attention to ratings, but what exactly determines whether or not you get a good rating on one particular night is something that I’ve been able to put into perspective more and more. [That includes] what’s going on with the competition, the Nielsen sample, the advertising for that show, whether or not my jacket fits. The individual day-by-day rating is something that I care about. But I don’t think about it all that much. I feel a little bit exempt from the corporate drama that happens here because I’ve exempted myself. And they don’t seem to mind that I just focus on 9 o'clock.