Commentary Magazine


Topic: town hall debate format

Were Those Questioners Really Undecided?

Fox News analyst Brit Hume spoke for many Americans last night when he predicted that the Hofstra University smackdown between President Obama and Mitt Romney would be the last presidential debate to use the town hall format. Let’s hope he’s right. Though some observers, like George Will, thought it was the best debate ever because it was a “good fight” that elicited a lot of discussion of the issues, the spectacle of the two candidates circling each other like a pair of animals in a fighting pit did little to enhance either’s credibility. It also led to a series of nasty and often confusing exchanges that didn’t do much for either man’s image or shed much light on the issues.

The format, which is an attempt to inject the voices of ordinary voters into the process, was, as it always is, something of a fake. Most of the supposedly undecided voters rounded up by the Gallup organization didn’t sound all that undecided. Even worse, the town hall format gives even more power to the moderator to not only choose the questions but to intervene in a contest that is, by its nature, more likely to veer out of control than a normal podium debate. That’s exactly what happened, as CNN’s Candy Crowley tilted the playing field in the president’s direction not only by backing up Obama on the Libya incident, as Alana noted earlier, but also by choosing more questions that were geared to favor the Democrat. If that doesn’t motivate Republican debate negotiators in 2016 to refuse to go along with another one of these circuses, then they won’t be doing their jobs.

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Fox News analyst Brit Hume spoke for many Americans last night when he predicted that the Hofstra University smackdown between President Obama and Mitt Romney would be the last presidential debate to use the town hall format. Let’s hope he’s right. Though some observers, like George Will, thought it was the best debate ever because it was a “good fight” that elicited a lot of discussion of the issues, the spectacle of the two candidates circling each other like a pair of animals in a fighting pit did little to enhance either’s credibility. It also led to a series of nasty and often confusing exchanges that didn’t do much for either man’s image or shed much light on the issues.

The format, which is an attempt to inject the voices of ordinary voters into the process, was, as it always is, something of a fake. Most of the supposedly undecided voters rounded up by the Gallup organization didn’t sound all that undecided. Even worse, the town hall format gives even more power to the moderator to not only choose the questions but to intervene in a contest that is, by its nature, more likely to veer out of control than a normal podium debate. That’s exactly what happened, as CNN’s Candy Crowley tilted the playing field in the president’s direction not only by backing up Obama on the Libya incident, as Alana noted earlier, but also by choosing more questions that were geared to favor the Democrat. If that doesn’t motivate Republican debate negotiators in 2016 to refuse to go along with another one of these circuses, then they won’t be doing their jobs.

We are told that Gallup assembled the audience of undecided New York voters, but the ones chosen to ask a question by Ms. Crowley didn’t appear to be all that undecided. The eleven questions she picked touched a variety of issues, but in terms of the subjects as well as the way they were posed, the choices gave an advantage to the president. Of the eleven, six were relative layups for Obama or based on Democratic Party talking points: comparing Romney to George W. Bush, outsourcing jobs abroad, calls for more gun control, protecting illegal immigrants, tax deductions for the middle class, and equality for women in the workplace. One was neutral: misperceptions about the candidates; and four might be said to have favored Romney: unemployment, the need for lower energy prices; how the next four years will be different, and Libya.

While not totally one-sided, that still skewed the debate a bit toward Obama. While each candidate had opportunities to make their points or to put their opponent on the defensive (opportunities that were often blown by Romney), the bias was accentuated by Crowley’s determination to play a role in the debate. It was not just her decision to weigh in on Libya to Obama’s advantage (Obama: “Can you say that a little louder, Candy?”) but also to interrupt or to silence Romney. Crowley interrupted Romney 23 times but only did it to Obama 8 times. Her defenders will say she was doing that in defense of the rules, but Crowley’s interest in them was highly selective. The rules stated that the questions would come only from the audience, not the moderator. But Crowley ignored that rule and interjected herself into the proceedings whenever the spirit moved her. A desire for fairness would have meant letting the candidates speak but Crowley preferred instead to shut Romney up when he wished to answer an inaccurate or unfair comment from Obama.

Moreover, as much as the previous debates between these two men and the vice presidential candidates threatened to get out of hand at times, Crowley completely went to sleep at times as the two mixed it up without restraint. They talked over each other and prowled around the stage menacingly, adding not only to the rancor but also to an impression of a lack of respect. There was little civility on display and the setting accentuated that failing.

But as bad as all that was, there was little sense that this unrepresentative group of questioners (four appeared to be Jewish or had Jewish sounding-names) were speaking for most Americans or that there was any sense of give and take between the candidates and the voters. The involvement of the public in such a format is more of a sham than anything else. While some viewers may have enjoyed the sight of two would-be commanders-in-chief brawling in public, the unedifying spectacle did little to raise the tone of the political culture. If that was the last town hall presidential debate, it’s a format that won’t be missed.

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