Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain, wave to the audience after a presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., Wednesday, October 15, 2008.
There's no question that Mitt Romney did very well in his first debate with Barack Obama. Indeed, it couldn't have gone much better, so much so that almost any performance in their meeting next week will seem like a let-down. But the second debate poses real dangers for Romney, and an opportunity for Obama to wipe away the memory of his poor performance in the first. Next week's will be a "town hall"-style debate, and that format plays right into Romney's weaknesses. The town hall debate will be challenging for Romney for two reasons, both of which have to do with the fact that it will feature not journalists or a moderator asking questions, but ordinary people.
Before I explain why, let's take a look at what town hall debates involve and how they have played out in the past. The first of these events took place in 1992, and it was a welcome change from prior debates in which a panel of journalists did their best to come up with "gotcha" questions to trip up the candidates. A group of undecided voters was assembled to ask the candidates questions, and it was quickly apparent that these voters had a different set of priorities. They asked about a wider variety of issues than one typically finds in a debate, and avoided the kind of poll-based, strategy-obsessed questions journalists so often ask ("Why aren't you having more success connecting with voters?"). The most memorable moment of the debate highlighted a novel characteristic of the town hall debate: that viewers were seeing candidates not only talk about policy, but interact with voters. When George H.W. Bush struggled (perhaps understandably) to answer a question a woman posed about how the national debt had personally affected him, he looked defensive and disconnected; when it came his turn to respond, Bill Clinton walked over to the woman, locked eyes with her, and said, "Tell me how it's affected you again? You know people who have lost their jobs, lost their homes?" He felt her pain, and it was the interaction between him and her that made an impression, more than the substance of what he said.
Each presidential election since has featured one town hall debate. Instead of standing behind a podium, the candidates perch on stools, then get up and walk around as they answer questions. Unlike in some similar debates during the primaries, the assembled undecided voters are close to them, close enough that camera shots will contain both the candidate and the voter he's speaking to. That creates a much more personal dynamic than the quasi-town hall debates that took place during the primaries, which featured people sitting far away in the audience of a theater and the candidates on stage. You can't dodge a voter's question or interrupt them, and you'll be judged in no small part on whether you seem to have persuaded that one individual. This dynamic upended Bush in 1992; the question about the national debt was one he obviously hadn't prepared for, but Clinton understood intuitively how to handle. And that is what makes the town hall debate a threat to Mitt Romney: it's unpredictable, both in what will be discussed and how it will be discussed.
As James Fallows explained in The Atlantic before the debates began, Romney assiduously prepares for debates, and as long as the questions that arise are those he has practiced answers for, he performs extremely well. "No one I spoke with," Fallows wrote, "challenged the view that Romney well prepared is a debater who can do real damage. All his team has to do is anticipate every subject that might possibly come up." In the first debate that was easy. Beforehand, both sides were informed of the agenda, that the debate would center on the economy, with a detour into health care and the rather vague topic of "governing." There were no curveballs, nothing unexpected, and everything Romney said was most likely an answer he had rehearsed dozens of times. But in the town hall debate, voters could ask about anything, including any of the important issues that haven't come up at all during the campaign. There might be a question about climate change, or the War on Drugs, or the drone war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, or gun violence, or something no one has considered. Some questions will be abstract, but others may be intensely personal—voters in town hall debates have often posed questions in terms of their own lives—and Romney will have to show that he cares not just about "the middle class" or "the 100 percent," but about that specific individual he's looking at. And as we know, it's when he interacts with voters that Romney is prone to looking awkward and uncomfortable and saying things that come back to haunt him.
It's entirely possible, of course, that Romney will do just fine. The questions might stay on familiar ground, and Romney's preparation for this debate could serve him as well as it did in the first one. As Politico reported about the first debate, "The more likable version of Romney was no accident—he worked hours on his smile, his posture and the delivery of his words." Now Romney is no doubt practicing his empathy in his mock debates, interacting with campaign staffers standing in for the regular people he'll encounter at the town hall debate.
And what about Obama? I went back and watched the 2008 town hall debate between Obama and John McCain, and the contrast between the two men was vivid. Unlike in last week's debate, Obama was smooth, assured, and engaged. McCain, on the other hand, seemed perturbed and uncomfortable. There was a stark physical contrast between the two men: Obama glided easily from one questioner to another, and did a terrific job of focusing on the person who asked each question, keeping his attention on them and explaining his positions in a way that was substantive but still plain-spoken. McCain would start with the questioner, but then pace around the stage awkwardly as though he couldn't decide where to stand or whom to look at.
There are some things we can confidently predict about the town hall debate. Obama will almost certainly arrive more awake and aggressive than he was in the first debate. When Romney gets a question he has anticipated, he will deliver a confident, well-rehearsed response. But it's the unpredictable moment—the oddly phrased question, the out-of-left-field topic, the voter's personal story—that will likely define the debate. And that could be Romney's real test.