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.