Five Fool-Proof Tips for Winning a Town Hall Debate

(AP Photo/Joe Marquette, File)

In this October 15, 1992 file photo, Moderator Carole Simpson, background center, presides over the Presidential debate between, from left, Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton, Independent candidate Ross Perot, center, and Republican candidate, President George H.W. Bush, at the University of Richmond, Virginia. The every-four-years ritual of a national "town hall" style debate began as a nerve-racking experiment in live television. Simpson was so nervous about turning over the microphone to regular folks and their questions that she spent days mapping out the presidential candidates and their issues on "a zillion 3-by-5 cards," in case she had to take over the questioning herself.

Tuesday night, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will meet in a "town hall" debate, which doesn't actually much resemble a town hall, but does provide an opportunity for ordinary voters to ask the candidates questions. So does this kind of forum actually give us any better idea of which candidate would be the superior president? As I noted last week, town hall debates are less predictable and tend to cover a wider range of topics than the format of a moderator and candidates standing behind podiums. That does mean that we could get a bit more insight into the operation of these two men's minds, but it also means that slightly different of skills and preparation are required.

A review of past town hall debates—there has been one in every presidential election since 1992—shows what Obama and Romney will have to do in order to succeed. Obama and Romney have, we assume, looked back at how their predecessors handled these events. Here's some of what they might have learned.


Expect the unexpected.

In 2004, in the last question of the debate, a woman asked President Bush to name three mistakes he had made and what he had done to correct them. You could almost smell the panic as Bush floundered around looking for an answer, eventually settling into a defense of the Iraq War and his tax cuts. Perhaps asking for three mistakes was unreasonable, but Bush couldn't come up with even one. As he knew, one of the main critiques Democrats made of him was that he had a unique combination of bumbling and arrogance, not knowing what he didn't know and seeing all his failures as smashing successes. So this question offered an opportunity for Bush to show some disarming humility. It could have been his best moment of the debate, but instead it turned into his worst.

The lesson may be that in preparing for a debate, particularly a town hall debate where there will almost inevitably be some unexpected questions, it's worthwhile to step back and wonder what you'd probably rather not talk about.

Don't lose the forest for the trees.

In 2000, Al Gore tried to create a confrontation with George W. Bush over the issue of a "patient's bill of rights." He did it in two ways: by strolling right up close to Bush as he was talking—which looked like an effort to unsettle Bush, but mostly came off as just rude—and by pressing Bush on his position on the Dingell-Norwood bill, a patient's bill of rights then-pending in Congress. Just as Gore hoped, Bush seemed to neither know nor care what was actually in the Dingell-Norwood bill. But just as Bush understood, most voters didn't either. So he easily turned the question into a broad statement of principles, and Gore ended up looking consumed with legislative minutiae. The lesson: it's possible to speak to people about substantive policy, but still do it in terms they'll understand.

Keep your frustration in check.

The physical space of the town hall debate allows you to walk around instead of being stuck behind a podium. This may help candidates feel less stiff and more relaxed, but it can also allow them to get worked up (I shudder to think what it might do to Joe Biden). And if you're on the defensive—over a particular question or in the campaign more generally—it's easy to let your frustration show as you prowl around the stage. "Exasperated" is not the state in which you want voters to see you. On a question about energy in the 2008 town hall, John McCain referred to Barack Obama as "that one," sounding like nothing so much as a grumpy old man complaining about the grandson he never liked:

If you're going to tell a story, make it count.

Many decades ago, political consultants started telling politicians that the way to humanize themselves was to tell a story involving a reg'lar person. This, it was assumed, was a sure-fire way to show voters you understand them and their concerns, because you have on many occasions met people just like them. But the technique only works if there's a lesson in the regular person's story. It has to illustrate a larger point you're making, or contain some element that demonstrates your concern for the person; in other words, it has to give listeners more than just the fact that you once met a guy who wasn't a politician or a millionaire donor. Here's George W. Bush doing it wrong:

Debates (and candidate speeches, for that matter) are full of these little drop-ins by regular Americans, usually communicating nothing more than "I have memorized the name of a voter." But unless the story is actually a story—one that contains some story elements like a setting, a progression of events, and so on—it comes off as an insincere attempt to convince voters you're connected to them when you obviously aren't. Which brings us to probably the most important advice a candidate could get about the town hall debate.

Only connect.

What town hall debates offer that other debates don't is a picture of the candidates among voters. If you connect well with those voters, it can be extremely persuasive, but if you fail at establishing that connection, it can be disastrous. Nothing illustrates this better than a moment I've mentioned before, the infamous "national debt" question from 1992. It not only provided a vivid contrast between George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, it also demonstrated as well as any moment has the added complexities of the town hall debate. Bush not only made the mistake of taking the woman's question (about how the national debt has personally affected the candidates) literally, he got defensive ("Are you suggesting that if somebody has means, that the national debt doesn't affect them?"), made a ham-handed attempt to tell a personal story ("I was in the Lomax AME church…"), and generally looked like he couldn't wait to move on. Clinton, on the other hand, got as close to the questioner as he could, locked eyes with her, and showed her how he felt her pain:

Clinton also stayed with her throughout his answer. This is something candidates evidently find difficult to do; the ones who aren't as good at this tend to repeat the questioner's name in an attempt to look like they're being empathetic ("I appreciate the question, Gladys"), then walk around, addressing all the people in the room. Clinton realized that the questioners were stand-ins for the voters, not as a group but as a sequence of individuals. So when one asks you a question, you focus intently on her, just like that viewer at home would want you to focus on them if they had the chance to ask you a question. For those 90 seconds, the rest of the people in the hall don't matter. Clinton seemed to have been highly attuned to where the cameras were placed, standing in the perfect spot most of the time and even tailoring his hand gestures to the likely framing of each shot. The lesson: Viewers aren't just watching you talk about issues, they're watching you connect with individual voters who are there to represent them.

But a moment precisely like this one is unlikely to happen again. In subsequent town hall debates, the campaigns have agreed that once the questioner finishes asking the question, his/her microphone will be cut off. This is done specifically to make it impossible for the candidates to engage in anything like the back-and-forth that was so damaging to Bush and fruitful for Clinton (here is the memorandum of understanding between the campaigns in 2004 that lays all this out; the 2012 one has not been made public, but this article explains how both the Obama and Romney campaigns are trying to keep moderator Candy Crowley from guiding the discussion too much). So it may be that we won't see a candidate crash quite as dramatically as Bush did in 1992. But because it adds the extra element of the group of undecided voters, the town hall debate is still the most likely to produce something interesting.

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