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Tonight’s “Town Hall” Debate Unlikely To Be A Game Changer

I’ve personally never been much of a fan of the “Town Hall” style debate portion of the quadrennial Presidential debates. Ever since the very first such debate twenty years ago between Bill Clinton, George Bush, and Ross Perot, it’s always been a format that has seem both contrived and superficial to me. In that first debate alone, we had two incidents that epitomized what’s wrong with the format. First, there was the woman who asked the three candidates to explain how the “national debt” has personally affected each of their lives. It was a rather idiotic question saved only by the fact that Bill Clinton changed it into a question about the economy. Worse than that, perhaps, was the pony-tailed “domestic mediator” in the audience who asked the candidates to ‘think of us as your children, and tell us how you will take care of us.’  Subsequent “Town Hall” format debates have been less than memorable, although I will say that the 2000 iteration did give us this memorable encounter between Al Gore and George W. Bush. Beyond that, though, these forums have quite honestly been largely a waste of time.

Tonight’s debate, though, comes with some added importance. President Obama’s bad performance in the October 3rd debate has contributed to a significant tightening of the race in Romney’s favor. Indeed, just today the Gallup Tracking Poll has Romney four points ahead of the President, and a poll done by PPP for the Daily Kos has Romney up five points. Most analysts are saying that the President needs to stop the bleeding tonight by putting in a strong performance and being more aggressive against Romney, while Romney needs to continue what he was doing in the first debate and reinforce the impressions that polls have indicated people now have of him, which are far more positive than they were just a week or so before the debate. As Michael Schear points out, though, the format of this debate poses issues for both candidate:

Both presidential candidates have had some of their most awkward and politically fraught moments when confronted directly by voters. Tuesday’s debate will force as many as a dozen such encounters, any one of which could become a crucial moment in the campaign’s remaining weeks.

Mr. Obama was caught off guard during a 2010 economic town hall forum on CNBC when an African-American woman declared herself profoundly disappointed in him. He grinned awkwardly and then rambled for four minutes, providing new evidence of the political peril from a still sluggish economy.

At the Iowa State Fair in 2011, Mr. Romney’s answer to a combative voter provided one of the most enduring — and damaging — moments in his campaign. “Corporations are people, too, my friend,” a defensive Mr. Romney responded, a line that would dog him in the months ahead.

For 90 minutes tonight, both candidates must seek to avoid such moments — and their advisers know it. There is precious little time left before Election Day to correct a devastating interaction should one occur.

Both men live in protective bubbles, shuttled around in bulletproof cars and protected by aides. The pointed questions they usually get are from reporters, pundits or the occasional greeting from a supporter on a rope line.

Mr. Romney is seen as particularly awkward when interacting with voters, and polls suggest that he has the bigger challenge. In most surveys, a majority of people say they do not believe that he understands their plight. He does not get high marks for empathy.

In the same polls, Mr. Obama scores better when it comes to understanding voters. But the president has sometimes struggled to display empathy when he’s talking to them. Instead, he has a tendency to answer emotion with explanation, often launching into a long, rambling discourse laden with facts and figures.

Jonathan Chait also notes that the President faces a dilemma heading into this debate:

A town hall debate is not really a debate. It is a kind of competitive question-answering show. The format revolves around undecided voters tossing queries at the candidates. The whole gestalt of the program is to privilege interaction between the candidates and the regular people speaking with them — for them to press each other with queries makes them look like they are avoiding the questions. Worst still, voters can be counted on to implore them to stop attacking each other and just get along.

And so the opportunities to expose the omissions and outright falsehoods in Romney’s repositioning will be vastly more limited than they were in the first debate, and the risks of attacking them much greater. This isn’t to say Obama can’t try to take Romney apart, only that the potential for such attacks to backfire is both large and — here is the crucial thing — uncertain.

The town hall debate, like all debates, is governed by fairly elaborate rules (explained in this long, lawyerly memo). But the rules aren’t really rules. The only technical enforcement mechanism is that the moderator is instructed to announce that a candidate has violated a rule. The only real measure is what the viewing audience thinks. You can fight as dirty as you want as long as the people in their living rooms think you’re fighting clean — or, alternatively, you can fight perfectly clean but still run the risk of coming off dirty. And how something will come off on television, perhaps after mediation via the Twitterized hive mind of the campaign press corps, is impossible to predict.

Some aspects of the performance clearly lie within Obama’s control. He can speak more crisply. He can resist his natural temptation to work within his opponent’s intellectual frame, and take up Joe Biden’s successful tactic of working from his own premises. But if he wants to tear into Romney’s elaborate rhetorical façade, he is putting himself at the mercy of a random and unpredictable dynamic.

One thing Obama really cannot afford to do, actually, is to emulate his Vice-President. Reviews of the Vice-Presidential debate were decidedly mixed, but the highlight of the night was the way Biden reacted any time Paul Ryan spoke and interrupted him a grant total of 82 times during the course of the evening. Something like that may have come across well in a format where it was just the two men and a moderator sitting around a table on a stage, but it’s would look and fee a lot different in a format where the two men are standing on a small stage surrounded by 82 average citizens. Indeed, if you go back and look at previous “Town Hall” debates, you’ll find very few examples of candidates directly confronting each other. The one memorable example of that happening is the Bush-Gore incident I noted above, and that was one where Gore ended up coming across as rather silly and a bit of a jerk. So, if the President goes full-on aggressive tonight, it could end up coming back to bite him.

Romney has his own issues heading into tonight’s debate. He needs to do what he can to avoid some of the awkwardness that has come across during other “town hall” like encounters on the campaign trail, and to avoid appearing dismissive of whatever concerns members of the audience might be expressing. In that final regard, he’s actually managed to loosen up quite a bit on the campaign trail since the October 3rd debate; he’s told more personal anecdotes and generally seemed as though he has been able to relate to the audience much better than in the past. If he keeps that up and avoids egregious errors like looking at his watch in the middle of the debate, then he stands a good chance of doing well tonight.

I tend to agree with Ed Morrissey, who argues at The Week that tonight’s debate is unlikely to be a game changer:

Unlike the VP debates, which have never impacted the trajectory of a presidential race, each presidential debate has the potential of being a gold mine or a minefield for both candidates. The reaction from the first presidential debate shows how much difference one event can make. In this case, though, the key debate has already taken place — and the key question was, could Mitt Romney be presidential enough to compete with Barack Obama on a stage? Romney won that debate by a wide margin two weeks ago, and that bell cannot be unrung easily.

Even apart from the difficulties of this town-hall format, the specifics of this debate are likely to be lost by the first of November in favor of the first and last impressions of debates — and the final debate next week takes place on foreign policy, a topic on which the Obama administration finds itself under siege. In other words, this debate will matter, but it will probably matter least of the three. The incumbent has to hope that the challenger makes an unprecedented gaffe tonight to reverse momentum, but the plan will probably be to perform well enough to stop the panic among the base — and the perception among independents that Obama isn’t up for the job.

Given the amount of prep time both of these candidates have gone through since October 3rd, the odds of a gaffe seem fairly low. In the end, that suggests that the debate will likely end up being perceived as mostly a draw which, in the current environment, arguably favors Governor Romney.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. “tonight’s debate is unlikely to be a game changer:”

    Probably true: but then again, that’s what I/we all thought about the first one.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 17 Thumb down 0

  2. Geek, Esq. says:

    A clear indication as to who should be the betting favorite to win the election can be inferred from what each candidate needs to achieve.

    Obama has a laundry list of issues to deal with–virtually impossible to meet all of them. He needs to do everything he should have done last time, but in a setting that’s not conducive to that.

    Romney merely has to avoid (1) gaffes and (2) seeming like a sociopathic corporate vulture. The fundamental direction of the campaign favors him now–every day the race moves more in his favor. He just needs to avoid self-destruction, and he wins.

    In all, probably interesting theater for junkies, but absent self-immolation on Romney’s part we probably know who’s going to win. The question is how is Romney going to govern, and how many downticket Democrats will Obama take with him.

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  3. Not an unfair point, but the dynamics of this (contrived) format are very different from the first debate.

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  4. Fiona says:

    Mitt 8.0 seems better programmed to display a more convincing version of empathy. I expect it will be on full view during the “debate,” when he’s not aggressively lying or shifting his position on any given issue for the umpteenth time. It will be interesting to see how many of Mitt’s statements his aides have to walk back post debate.

    I don’t see how Obama gains any ground here. He lacks Clinton’s talent for the common touch, which allowed Clinton to shine during these events.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 4

  5. Geek, Esq. says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Team Romney was very much pushing the first debate as a game-changer. In the 47 percent tape, Romney said the key was getting on that stage with Obama. Chris Christie said the debate would turn the race upside down.

    Prescience or wishful thinking? Certainly the Republicans saw weaknesses in Obama that Democrats (and the media) did not see–and Romney exposed them at that debate.

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  6. Geek, Esq. says:

    @Fiona:

    Agreed. Romney has figured out that 70 million people don’t watch Eric Fehnstrom walk back his statements.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  7. Given the amount of prep time both of these candidates have gone through since October 3rd, the odds of a gaffe seem fairly low. In the end, that suggests that the debate will likely end up being perceived as mostly a draw which, in the current environment, arguably favors Governor Romney.

    Of course, this is what you said about the first debate, except then it was a lock for Obama.

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  8. rodney dill says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: It would probably take something unsuspected for Mitt to win like that again. Between the two, it would be more likely for Mitt to lose some ground tonight.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  9. Dazedandconfused says:

    Mitt released the details to his tax plan, right on the eve of this important debate.

    http://www.romneytaxplan.com/

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  10. @Dazedandconfused: Good one.

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  11. Just Me says:

    I think the first debate was only a game changer because Obama failed so miserably at it.

    If the consensus post Townhall debate is liberals thinking their guy won and conservatives thinking theirs did then there probably won’t be much change going on.

    This is probably my least favorite debate type-mostly because it seems the most contrived. I think both candidates have to march a minefield in this type of debate as well-I don’t think it plays to either man’s strengths.

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  12. rodney dill says:

    @Just Me:

    If the consensus post Townhall debate is liberals thinking their guy won and conservatives thinking theirs did then there probably won’t be much change going on.

    The only measure I’d rely on is a significant shift in a majority of the polls.*

    *(and yes, they probably won’t all shift the same amount, or in the same direction, or at the same time)

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  13. Jen says:

    How many people will watch–in terms of drop off of interest, I mean? The political junkies will tune in to watch their candidate, of course, but I am sensing deep election fatigue among my non-political friends. Most have said they have no interest in watching because they are just sick of it all. I can’t even begin to think about the likelihood that true undecided voters will carve out another 90 minutes to watch.

    This is certainly starting to look more and more like it’s now Romney’s race to lose.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  14. David M says:

    What Obama has to do isn’t really very complicated, but it’s necessary. First, defend his record and point out how it has helped the economy recover, and point out how his policies will help during his next term. Secondly, point out that Romney’s policies don’t work, and do it with conviction.

    If Obama can’t do those 2 things, what Romney does won’t matter too much. If Obama is able to get his message across to the voters and remind them of the truth about Romney’s proposals, then he should be in a better position.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  15. Dazedandconfused says:

    @Jen:

    I’ve thought that ever since I saw David Gergen lead the rest of the talking heads on CNN into concluding that Ryan won the debate with Biden on that night. He’s supposed to be a learned man, and he is. If CNN has become that shallow or corrupted, it’s Romney’s race to lose. It’s where the people whose votes are truly up for grabs are going to look for serious analysis IMO.

    If that is the best they get….

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  16. LCaution says:

    I dislike all town hall “debates”. It’s no doubt possible that some voter somewhere sometime asked a meaningful, useful question, but I can’t remember one. My normal reaction is chagrin that the audience members are fellow citizens. (Yes, I am being misanthropic.)

    If the participants tonight are still truly undecided at this stage, their disconnection from the country, let alone politics, must be enormous. They are more likely to restore Jim Lehrer’s reputation than to add anything to the process.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  17. Davebo says:

    @David M:

    Secondly, point out that Romney’s policies don’t work, and do it with conviction.

    It’s near impossible to point out that your opponents policies don’t work when he refuses to tell anyone what his policies are or if they exist at all.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  18. Davebo says:

    I tend to agree with Ed Morrissey

    Well there’s a shocker!

    From Ed’s new hangout you linked.

    The attack: The Obama campaign is pulling out all the stops to pull apart Mitt Romney’s tax plan.

    Tell me Doug, do you know what Mittens tax plan entails aside from 20% across the board tax cut and kicking Big Bird to the curb?

    If so, could you enlighten those of us who never got the secret decoder ring?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  19. wr says:

    “In the end, that suggests that the debate will likely end up being perceived as mostly a draw which, in the current environment, arguably favors Governor Romney.”

    Well, all your readers are pretty sure this will be your perception, no matter what happens in the actual debate…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  20. David M says:

    @Davebo:

    It’s near impossible to point out that your opponents policies don’t work when he refuses to tell anyone what his policies are or if they exist at all.

    That explains the last debate, but there has to be ammunition for Obama to use. Romney/Ryan and the GOP have plenty of nonsensical policies that Obama can let Romney “own”, whether or not Romney wants them.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  21. An Interested Party says:

    Romney merely has to avoid (1) gaffes and (2) seeming like a sociopathic corporate vulture. The fundamental direction of the campaign favors him now–every day the race moves more in his favor. He just needs to avoid self-destruction, and he wins.

    The question is how is Romney going to govern, and how many downticket Democrats will Obama take with him.

    You continue to make extremely premature predictions…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  22. KariQ says:

    Trivial point, but the PPP poll has Romney ahead by 4 not 5.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  23. john personna says:

    I did not shop for any tasty debate snacks, so I’m not sure how long I’ll be able to take it.

    That I worry about that probably means few marginally attached or undecided voters will show.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  24. Geek, Esq. says:

    @An Interested Party:

    Obama’s entire re-election strategy has blown up in his face. He’s fallen behind nationally, and continues to lose 1-2 points in the swing states and nationally per week.
    Florida is less of a swing state than Pennsylvania is, and Romney’s not even advertising in Pennsylvania.

    He’s looking for a Plan B three weeks before the election.

    You can tell which campaign is going to lose by which one writes memo pushing back on opinion polls.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  25. Davebo says:

    @Davebo:

    Obviously it would take Doug too long to explain in a comment here. Hey, it’s worked for Ryan time and again.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  26. john personna says:

    @Geek, Esq.:

    If the election were held today, Obama would have a 63.8% chance of winning. That’s pretty good. He has time to try a couple course adjustments before November 6.

    It certainly would not be conservative to throw over a strategy that has given him the odds-on win so far. You only “reboot” when you are in the reverse position, down around 20% or 30% chance of a win. You know, where the guy with an actual “blown up in his face” situation was a few weeks ago.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  27. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    One thing to keep in mind: the last time CNN hosted a town-hall-style debate, it was for the Republican candidates in the fall of 2007 — and they stacked the deck with Democratic operatives and activists. I think it was right around 1 in 4 was easily tied to the Democrats.

    For a debate for the Republican nomination.

    Hell, one of them was even an advisor on Hillary’s campaign.

    Will CNN try to pull the same crap again?

    Does the Pope crap in the woods?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  28. Geek, Esq. says:

    @john personna:

    Again, I would point in the lists of what each candidate has to do. Romney has to do very little to maintain his momentum in this debate. Obama has to do quite a bit to reverse it. And if Obama doesn’t turn it around, he will lose, perhaps by a significant margin.

    Silver’s model is what it is–it doesn’t account for things that everyone sees but can’t quantify. It had Obama going up the day after the debate, when everyone else knew the race had changed.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  29. @Geek, Esq.: @Geek, Esq.:

    Silver’s model is what it is–it doesn’t account for things that everyone sees but can’t quantify. It had Obama going up the day after the debate, when everyone else knew the race had changed.

    That was a function of the fact the polls are not instantaneous. As such, the model has a lag by definition.

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  30. stonetools says:

    Well, the first debate wasn’t supposed to be game changer either. That was based on what happened in previous election cycles. Its irrelevant to this cycle.
    The first debate was clearly a game changer. Obama had Romney in his sights, but then turned the gun on his foot with a listless, disjointed performance. Maybe he listened to those guys who said debates didn’t matter.
    It seems to me that to restore his mojo, Obama has to win (whatever a win may be). . That’s going to be hard, because he can’t really get at Romney, except through voter’s questions.
    A big problem for Obama is that he seems incapable of turning off the professor in his head and giving short, punchy answers to questions. In one previous town meeting, he gave a 17 minute answer to one voter’s question. He can’t do that again. He needs to think elevator pitches and one liners , not treatises and scholarly articles .
    He also has to realize that he is coming to a fight, not a fricking discussion. He has to hit Romney hard, and refute his BS. A problem is that Romney is a shape-shifter like no other. Obama can’t let him get away with that.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  31. stonetools says:

    @Geek, Esq.:

    You take concern trolling to a whole new level.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  32. Geek, Esq. says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    It’s further compromised by the fact that it doesn’t imply correlations where they warranted, i.e. it doesn’t draw the appropriate causal link between events and changes in poll numbers. It can’t do this because, well, it’s an algorithm that doesn’t perceive the world.

    Silver himself has pointed this out–that there’s a trade off between volatility in the model and sensitivity to actual changes in the race.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  33. Geek, Esq. says:

    @stonetools:

    I agree with this. It’s possible for Obama to turn things back in his direction with this debate.

    It is very much an open question whether–given the constraints of format as well as how his debating skill compares to his opponent’s–he will.

    The real question is the degree to which persuadeable voters have open questions about Obama, about Romney, or both.

    If they’re people who Obama ‘lost’ because of the last debate, there’s the possibility he can bring them back in the tent.

    If they’re people who’ve already kind of decided they’d like someone else but are giving Romney a hard look, well that’s much more problematic.

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  34. David M says:

    @Geek, Esq.:

    The question is how is Romney going to govern, and how many downticket Democrats will Obama take with him.

    I agree with this. It’s possible for Obama to turn things back in his direction with this debate.

    You’re kind of all over the map on some of your predictions, but there’s no evidence to support the first statement, hence the accusations of concern troll.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  35. @Geek, Esq.: It seems that what you are are noting is that a numeric model based on polling data doesn’t take into account subjective interpretations about the state of the race. But the bottom line remains that the issue at hand is not subjective perceptions, but rather the polling numbers. That is the only way to empirically get a sense of the actual state of the race.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  36. Clanton says:

    These are the most programmed, rehearsed, sanitized debates ever. Meaningful questions will not be allowed. Everything has been carefully screened and plans in effect just in case someone tries to ask a question that is not supposed to be asked. See this site for a meaningful comment about this: http://www.truthmongers.com/phony-debates-for-itching-ears.html

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  37. KariQ says:

    @john personna:

    If the election were held today, Obama would have a 63.8% chance of winning. That’s pretty good.

    Princeton’s Sam Wang is even more optimistic: Today, President Obama’s November re-elect probability is 84% – still a Russian-roulette situation for the Democrats. http://election.princeton.edu/2012/10/15/the-passing-storm/#more-7552

    This was written yesterday, so the precise numbers are a little different on the national race, but the prediction is still favorable and hasn’t changed since yesterday. http://election.princeton.edu/todays-electoral-vote-histogram/

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  38. john personna says:

    Mass Mitt just ran on free college tuition!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  39. bill says:

    obama just needed to show up and look interested, and he did.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0