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To cite from wikipedia:

The format of the presidential debates, though defined differently in every election, is typically more restrictive than many traditional formats, forbidding participants to ask each other questions and restricting discussion of particular topics to short time frames.

Why is this forbidden?

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I was going to add the primaries tag, but then I realized that the general election debates follow the same restriction. – Bobson Mar 11 at 15:54
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In reality forbidden is probably a strong word. Even in this election cycle there have been a number of cases were one candidate directly or indirectly asked (often times in the form of an accusation) another candidate something. – David Grinberg Mar 11 at 17:12
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Note that the candidates/campaigns themselves negotiate the format of the debates in excruciating details. So it's not so much a third party “forbidding” it as the candidates making their participation conditional on this (and other) rules. – Relaxed Mar 11 at 20:27
up vote 16 down vote accepted

The purpose of the debates is to give the audience the opportunity to directly compare the positions of the candidates.

Having the candidates ask questions to each other would not be useful for that, because

  1. Not all participant will answer the same questions, so there is no direct comparison.
  2. The participants would mostly choose questions which do not have the intention to learn more about the viewpoint of the other candidates. They would likely use the opportunity to ask loaded questions with the intention to lead the other participants to defame themselves and not constructive questions which help to further the debate.
  3. It would lead to a back-and-forth of such loaded questions circling around a subject where each participant wants to be the one to ask the last question. There would be no way for the moderator to break up this cycle without discriminating one of the participants.
  4. When the debate has a specific focus, participants could ask questions which are off-topic to lead it into a direction which is more comfortable for them. The moderator could try to intervene, but that would likely just lead to an even less constructive meta-debate: "I know we are talking about foreign policy, but America deserves to know why the other candidate is beating his wife! ... No, I will not retract the question, in the name of all victims of domestic abuse I must insist on my opponent answering this question... what do you mean it's not about foreign policy? I am asking in the name of abuse victims worldwide!"

Having a neutral party ask the same question to each participant is a far better way to provide the viewer with a direct comparison. A good (!) moderator will also choose and phrase the questions in a way that it gives the participants a fair chance to present their viewpoints without having to waste time with reframing the question to diffuse any hidden attacks in them.

Note that during the preparation phase of such debates, the candidates and their teams usually get the opportunity to suggest which questions to ask, so the candidates can use this to raise questions which will be comfortable for them but uncomfortable for their opponents.

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Your argument for direct comparison makes sense - but i doubt the fairness is really an legit argument. Basically, I'd expect the participants to remain polite if asking questions; if they won't do that the moderator should intervene. Therefore i don't see politeness and asking questions as contradicting. – toogley Mar 11 at 15:20
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@toogley - politeness? in US prez elections? That'd be... unexpected – user4012 Mar 11 at 17:08
    
@user4012 well i was thinking of debates in general democratic elections, not necessarily in the US. I have to admit this attitude is slightly idealistic :D – toogley Mar 11 at 17:19
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@toogley You were asking specifically about US presidential debates. – Philipp Mar 11 at 17:23
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Note just how hard it is to keep these guys on topic when the moderator is asking specific, fair, well worded questions... and extrapolate a hundredfold. – wedstrom Mar 12 at 0:21

The format of U.S. Presidential debates is negotiated between at least four parties:

  1. The relevant party's (or parties') "National Committee(s)". Usually the leadership of these groups have a vested interest in seeing that their nominees (or leading candidates) are not embarrassed. During the general election, the two major parties' National Committees have a joint "Debate Commission".
  2. The television network that is televising the debate. The television network has a vested interest in having their hosts be perceived as asking "tough questions". Usually the television network is either biased toward one of the candidates (and does not want that candidate to be embarrassed), or is biased against all of the candidates.

    PBS, CNN, CBS, NBC, and ABC have a history of supporting "establishment Democrats"; Fox has a history of supporting Republicans; and Fox's executive in charge of its 2016 debates is the father of Rubio's press secretary.
  3. The front-running candidate. Usually this candidate wishes to avoid being embarrassed during the debate. If the candidates get any say in how the debate will be structured, this candidate will have the most influence of any of the candidates.
  4. The trailing candidate(s). These candidates might want to embarrass the leading candidate, but have the least influence on the debate format.

Notice that three of the four most influential parties either have a vested interest in one of the candidates not being embarrassed, and/or have a vested interest in allowing the hosts to make candidate(s) look bad.

Thus, the debate is structured so that the television hosts control the questions that are asked.

Occasionally, the debate is framed as a "town-hall event" with questions from the audience. But even in these situations, the questions (or questioners) are chosen by a moderator.

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It's a false rule.

All you have to do to effectively ask a question is make an assertion involving the other candidate's name in the form of an accusation:

"I don't know why Homer Simpson won't tell the American people why his hair is a 'W' shape...."

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This is definitely true. A good portion of the talking time in a debate is spent "responding" to something another candidate said. This can lead to less argumentative candidates getting little speaking time. – DCShannon Mar 12 at 1:45

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