Commentary Magazine


Six Pitfalls in Town Hall Style Debate

Because tomorrow’s debate will be in a town hall format with audience interaction, it’s going to pose different challenges for the candidates than the last podium debate. Here are six pitfalls President Obama and Mitt Romney might run into:

1.  Getting too personal:

President Obama’s campaign has said he’ll be more aggressive in this debate, leading some to wonder whether that will play negatively in a town hall format. But an aggressive back-and-forth over policy can actually be a good thing; President Bush and Senator John Kerry had some engaging but heated exchanges at their town hall in 2004 over national security. The problem is when the attacks are perceived as bitter or personal, like Senator John McCain’s reference to Obama as “that one” in 2008. Obama comes in with a disadvantage tomorrow, since his supporters expect him to aggressively criticize Romney to make up for his lackluster performance last time. Unless he keeps the attacks funny and light, they could backfire on him.

2. Rambling too much:

Keeping answers focused and succinct is a good idea in any debate, but it’s particularly important during town hall debates because the faces of audience members are visible and the feedback is more obvious. Speakers often feed off the energy level of an audience, and a room full of bored people isn’t going to encourage a lively debate. Plus, high definition means that viewers at home are going to pick up on every yawn, glazed eye or baffled expressions in the audience. SNL mocked some of McCain and Obama’s rambling answers after their town hall debate in 2008.

3. Failing to connect with the audience:

Town hall debates allow the candidates to personally appeal to the audience, and Bill Clinton’s “I feel your pain” ad lib at the first televised town hall debate in 1992 is the quintessential example. Neither Romney nor Obama really excel in this area, and in 2008, Obama was much cooler toward the audience than John McCain. That’s going to be a challenge for both Obama and Romney tomorrow.

4. Physical appearances are more obvious:

The age difference between Obama and McCain was never more obvious than at their town hall debate, because there’s no podium to hide behind and the candidates had to walk around and respond directly to audience members. Physical appearance probably won’t be as much of an issue tomorrow, since age hasn’t been a factor in this election and Romney and Obama are around the same height. But certain body language, and the way the candidates carry themselves, may be more noticeable.

5. Getting rattled:

Obama and Romney have pretty calm demeanors, but they’ve also both gotten rattled under tough questioning. Romney blew up after Rick Perry accused him of hiring illegal immigrants at one of the GOP primary debates last year, and Obama has been known to snap at aggressive reporters. The president also had difficulty hiding his personal animosity for Romney at the last debate, which could make him more likely to get flustered or annoyed tomorrow. Tensions also run higher in the less-formal format. Last week, long-time Democratic incumbent congressmen Brad Sherman and Howard Berman — who are locked in a competitive run-off — nearly got into a physical altercation at a town hall-style debate.

6. Not staying for the aftershow:

Reporters often interview audience members after the debate, so the candidates want to try to leave them with a good impression. In 2008, McCain was criticized for leaving shortly after the debate ended, while Obama stuck around posing for photos and answering questions. It’s a small thing, but it could make a difference in the post-coverage.