Zombie Apocalypse “Town Hall” debate is coming
posted at 8:45 am on October 5, 2012 by Libby Sternberg
The glow of the first presidential debate still warms the hearts of Republicans as their nominee, Mitt Romney, clearly outshone President Obama. Savor the moment. The next presidential debate on October 16 is….(wait for it)….
****The TOWN HALL FORMAT!****
Am I the only one who loathes this kind of discussion arrangement? The Commission on Presidential Debates describes the setup thus:
The second presidential debate will take the form of a town meeting, in which citizens will ask questions of the candidates on foreign and domestic issues. Candidates each will have two minutes to respond, and an additional minute for the moderator to facilitate a discussion. The town meeting participants will be undecided voters selected by the Gallup Organization.
Let’s unpack this, shall we? “Undecided voters selected by the Gallup Organization”—that phrase is fraught with peril. Any time I’ve watched a town hall debate with participants chosen in this way, it seems to me most of the “undecideds” skewed left. Who, by October 16, will be sincerely undecided? My guess is a bunch of that crowd will be disillusioned former Obama supporters who might not be looking for information so much as rationales for not abandoning their guy.
Tip for the Romney camp: Prepare as if the entire audience will be from a 2008 Obama rally.
Another word or two about these so-called undecideds—by October 16, the truly undecided might also be the woefully uninformed. This can lead to simplistic and even silly questions, questions that ramble endlessly, taking up precious time before getting to a point, or even the completely irrelevant “boxers vs. briefs” inquiries.
The format and moderator (in this case, CNN’s Candy Crowley) can help avoid these possibilities. For example, if questions are written down rather than spoken by the audience, the moderator can get to the point surely and swiftly, not allowing a questioner to filibuster debate time away. And, a moderator can also take a muddled question and turn it into something substantive. Will that happen?
Tip for the Romney campaign: If the moderator doesn’t do that job, make sure you do. Don’t be afraid to say, “If I understand you correctly, I think you want to know….” Take the question in the policy direction that is most meaningful for the larger audience.
Finally, the president will surely be more prepared than he was on October 3, and he’s likely to be more aggressive toward Romney, maybe even using a few lines from his post-Denver campaign rallies in which he joked that some other Mitt Romney showed up at the debate. It’s hard to imagine the Romney camp isn’t prepared for that sort of attack, though—Romney seemed prepared for it on October 3.
I’d love to see Romney turn such accusations back onto the president. When Obama is before a friendly audience, he acts as though someone else has been president for the past four years and he’s running against that phantom leader. Post-debate, the president talked to a crowd of supporters about holding Romney accountable—as if Romney had been the one in the Oval Office. This is an implicit admission that the president can’t tout his own record, which is strewn with economic failures. At some point, Romney might want to say this outright—that the president acts as if he’s the challenger running against a sitting president. With all due respect, Mr. Obama, you are the sitting president. You have a record of your own you should be held accountable for, and that’s what this election is really about. Did you fulfill your promises, did you lead the country down the right path, or are things still bad and getting worse?
Although this next debate format makes me nervous for Romney, there are some problems the president will have trouble overcoming. One is the “are you better off” question which, even if not posed, will underlie much of the discussion.
The other problem is the president’s personality. While some pundits suggest that he fears looking like the “angry black man” and thus reins in any indignation, I don’t think that’s the reason for his style challenge at all. When the president gets irritated, he often looks peevish, arrogant and disconnected. Chances are he wants to avoid that optic, partially on display during the first debate, at all costs. It’s hard to change that kind of ingrained personality “tic” in just a few weeks.
Mitt Romney, on the other hand, has a great advantage in just being himself. As he demonstrated on October 3, probably for the first time for millions of viewers, he’s a pretty likable guy.
Libby Sternberg is a novelist.