By NBC’s David Murphy
Town hall debates are designed to give candidates a chance to hear directly from voters, and to let voters get answers to the issues foremost on their minds. A look back at the first five presidential town hall debates, beginning in 1992, provide an interesting time capsule that demonstrates how the nation’s focus has shifted over time, from social issues to health care to foreign affairs to the economy.
Back in 1992, as voters sought a way out of the recession of the early ‘90’s, the economy and the deficit led the way, coming up in five questions – almost half the total. The rest was a grab bag – questions on Congressional term limits, diversity and urban enterprise zones were also raised. Four years later, a question about closing the partisan gap led the debate between President Clinton and former Sen. Bob Dole. The bulk of it, however, dealt with economic issues – from capital gains to the trade deficit with Japan. Social issues also moved into the spotlight as voters sought answers about welfare reform, gay rights and affirmative action.
Health care concerns led the way when Texas Gov. George W. Bush engaged Vice President Al Gore in 2000, taking up the first three questions. We also saw the issues targeted more directly to the candidates – for example, a question on capital punishment (for Bush) and farm policy (for Gore). In the first presidential town hall to follow 9/11, foreign affairs and national security predictably dominated the conversation. Seven of the 19 questions to President Bush and Senator John Kerry focused on Iraq, Iran, the military and national security. In 2004, we also saw a shift in the social issues that were raised – gun control giving way to abortion, gay rights giving way to stem cell research.
As Senators Barack Obama and John McCain took the stage last time around, the economic crisis was front and center. The crux of the first five question was: how do we fix this? The latter half of the conversation was dominated by overseas concerns, with voters asking one question each about terrorism, Russia, Israel and America’s role overseas.
On Tuesday night, President Obama and former Governor Mitt Romney predictably locked horns over the economic issues with nearly half the 11 questions designed to pin them down on jobs, tax plans and equal pay. Interestingly, the candidates were also offered three questions that gave them opportunities to clarify or defend their positions. For the first time since the town hall debates began 20 years ago, health care didn’t merit a question (although it was discussed) and entitlement reform was barely mentioned. On the other hand, some things never change. One of the very first questions in that first town hall debate in 1992 was about negativity and the mischaracterization of the candidates – the same topic addressed with the last question on Tuesday.
One final note: the final question in the 1992 debate was about diversity, with the questioner asking candidates Clinton, Bush and Perot when they thought America would see an African-American or a woman on a presidential ticket. All of them predicted it would happen in their lifetime. At least in that instance, all three got the question right.