Romney Versus the People

(AP Photo/Pool, Charles Dharapak)

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.

Comments

I hope you're right, but remember that unscripted give-and-take is not really Obama's strong point either. His best public performances have involved delivering prepared speeches.

I hope that someone will ask Mr. Etch-a-Sketch why he remained affiliated, well into his adult life, with a church that excluded blacks from its priesthood. (Mr. Romney was 31 years old when the ban was lifted.)

What if Robert Byrd, who for many years was third in the line of presidential succession, had never repudiated the KKK?

Given the racist anti white rants from the 2007 speech Obama gave regarding Katrina victims I'd be careful with those accusations. And Obama knew he was lying at the time as he knew $7 billion was on its way with no attachements and that $110-120 B was in total going to New Orleans when no more than $20 went to NYC for 9/11. Not only that but why did Obama fail to tell them that he voted against not using the Stafford Act on Louisiana and New Orleans? Looks to me if all you can do is make lame Etch a Sketch comments and mormon jokes that you dont have much -- just like OBama has nothing to run on.

bTeri, if you regard the LDS history of racism as a "[M]ormon joke", that speaks volumes about you. None of it good.

Hey Johnny, I hope someone will ask the Liar-in-Chief why he stayed member of a church that was so racist and anti-American, for so long. And, why has the Liar-in-Chief maintained such close associations with so many exposed (and who knows how many un-exposed) criminals, and anti-American Marxists? It's the considered opinion of many wise Americans that Obama is still a Muslim at heart. This is not merely right wing rhetoric. The proof is in his deeds...or the lack thereof.

If Obama is as prepared for the next debate as he was for the first one, he should also prepare to move out of the White House and begin to tone down his obvious disdain for soon-to-be President Romney. The townhall meeting style will be fine with Mitt Romney, he's met a lot of people because, without a day job, he's been able to campaign almost as much as Obama and listened to their problems, not only that, Mitt Romney might actually have a clue about how to fix some of them. How can HE be called, "improvistion shy" when it was Obama, with Mitt Romney RIGHT THERE, who couln't get his own tongue out of the way. Obama needs to do his debate prep the Chicago Way.
First, make sure the debate is held as close to sea-level as possible so his delicate brain will remain oxygenated.
Next, make sure this moderator understands when to jump in and save Obama from himself. I think it would be very helpful to Obama if the moderator just tells Romney to stop lying and listen to the president.
Have intermissions so Obama can take a break backstage with Chris matthews and the MSNBC bunch. This will break any Romney momentum and also keep Obama focused on anything but his record which you just know Romney will try to bring up.
Obama should have his teleprompter. He can load it up with his talking points and if there are any questions that were not anticipated, he should not have to answer them.
I do think some of the sting from Obamas recent epic thumping in front of 65 million people will fade, because we'll soon be talking about how Paul Ryan made Joe Biden look like Barack Obama, only worse.

Romney didnt lie... He dared to be himself and represent his actual platform and not the lies and distortions the Obama campaign has fed to the voters through their disgraceful and dishonest ads for the past 4 months. You may not share Romney's conservative ideology but the attempted character assassination of Mitt Romney by the Obama campaign was shameful and a neon sign just how weak Obama's message is as to why he deserves to be reelected. Mitt Romney has been nothing but an honorable, charitable, honest, gracious, hard working, loving man his entire life. Disagree with Romney's policies , dont vote for him if thats the case....but making up the horrible lies being said about him (yes Harry Reid - I'm talking to you-- and you sir will be going straight to hell when your time comes) is reprehensible

As for the town hall Romney will as always be prepared for any topic-- including Obama attacks - and if the primary debates were any indication Romney is quite capable of defending himself and launching a few at Obama -- and there are plenty to throw-- regardless of all the part time jobs misleading the unemployment numbers.... Wonder what the Obama campaign is going to try to do to cover up the Benghazi terrorist attack cover up? or the ignoring desperate requests for more security in Benghazi cover up? Hmmmm

Go ahead and ad-lib Romney. Feel empowered. Say what you feel. We know how well that's worked for you. I'll be taking my 47% vote and voting for our president.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FvTIphPnDM8

Everyone knows that Romney was stating truthful facts when he said that. It's sad to see left wing Americans who hide and/or distort the truth when it benefits them, politically.

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