Debate idea: candidates question the undecided voters
posted at 9:28 am on October 7, 2012 by Libby Sternberg
The vice-presidential debate is next on the agenda, but my thoughts keep drifting forward to the second presidential face-off: the October 16 debate between President Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. This is the match-up with the “town hall” format. As previously noted, the participants in this debate are “undecided voters” chosen by the Gallup organization.
I’ve already stated my abhorrence for this format. Who is genuinely undecided at this stage of the campaign? I can only imagine it’s the uninformed or those leaning in one direction who might need some shoring up. Saturday Night Live satirized them hilariously here (be warned: ad precedes clip, but it’s still worth the watch):
Letting uninformed voters question the candidates is akin to a science teacher letting only the inattentive students in a class ask questions of Stephen Hawking during a visit to campus. Why should they be rewarded for their inattention? In such a case, it would be better for Mr. Hawking to question the slackers, probing the depth of their lack of knowledge and suggesting areas for improvement.
Come to think of it, perhaps that would be a better format for the Town Hall debate, too—the candidates get to question the participants, helping educate them on the role of government, what various programs can and can’t do, the federal budget, the Constitution, why we’re involved in different areas of the world. That might be something worth watching.
To be charitable, one can assume that many undecided voters simply have been busy with their own lives, neither news junkies nor obsessed with politics in general. Therefore, their focus will be on real, everyday problems that many Americans also face.
But just because these folks are undecided or don’t identify with a particular party (partisan), doesn’t necessarily mean they’re non-ideological. If pressed, they might be able to give you a general sense of what they think government should be doing in their own lives. In that case, what you have is an undecided leaner, someone who leans toward or away from a particular theory of government. And if they haven’t given a lot of thought to the role of government in their lives, there’s a better chance they lean left than right. It’s a multi-step process to get from “I want such-and-such in my life” to “but the government shouldn’t have to give it to me.” It probably takes more than the allotted debate time to be convinced of that philosophy or to reason that out.
The question remains: why do these folks get access to the president of the United States and his challenger on one of the rare occasions we get to see the candidates together?
I can understand the impulse behind the crafting of the town hall format. So-called “everyday Americans” are more likely to bring general macro policy discussions down to the micro level. But surely there are ways to probe the candidates’ stances on issues at that level other than subjecting them—and those of us who have done our homework, studied and paid attention—to questions from folks who might not know their own minds, let alone the pressing policies of the day.
Libby Sternberg is a novelist