Town hall debates: A tradition ‘younger than Lindsay Lohan’

The stage is set prior for the second presidential debate Tuesday at the David Mack Center at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York.
The stage is set prior for the second presidential debate Tuesday at the David Mack Center at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York.
Saul Loeb/AFP Photo

Early Tuesday morning, 80 voters arrived at Hofstra University to practice reciting their town hall debate questions for President Obama and Mitt Romney. The Gallup polling company selected these voters from among the undecided in the surrounding town of Hempstead, NY. And knowing that they get to rehearse, it’s perhaps a bit more clear how these questioners avoid stuttering when addressing the President of the United States in front of tens of millions of people.

Surprisingly, national town hall debates like this one have quite a brief history. As Chuck Todd pointed out on Daily Rundown Tuesday, “it may seem time-honored these days … but the televised town hall debate is actually younger than Lindsay Lohan.”

Proposed by Bill Clinton’s campaign team in 1992, town hall debates have only been used in five presidential elections, with Tuesday night’s making this election the sixth. The format is markedly less formal than other debate formats, with voters choosing and asking the questions rather than a moderator. However, CNN’s Candy Crowley has said she won’t be afraid to ask follow-up questions when moderating Tuesday’s debate if, for example, “Alice asks oranges, and someone answers apples.”

“There’s the time to go, ‘But Alice asked oranges. What’s the answer to that?’” Crowley said in an interview on CNN.

Town hall debates give the candidates more freedom of movement, the opportunity to move away from their podiums and engage with the audience. Bill Clinton famously used this flexibility to great effect in 1992 when debating George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot. He approached the questioners, singling them out, and conveyed empathy and concern through his proximity.

Al Gore’s use of space had the opposite effect in 2000; many people felt he had invaded George W. Bush’s space by moving too close to him in the debate.

No doubt President Obama will try to emulate Clinton more than Gore at Tuesday’s town hall. But coming off a spiritless performance in the first debate, Obama has been pressured by many on the left to be more aggressive with Mitt Romney—without, of course, sounding like a bully.

Obama struck this balance at his town hall debate with John McCain in 2008 when addressing the question of his inexperience:

“Senator McCain suggests that somehow I’m green behind the ears, that I’m spouting off, and he’s somber and responsible.” Obama said at the time. “Senator McCain, this is the guy who sang, ‘Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran,’ who called for the annihilation of North Korea. That, I don’t think, is an example of speaking softly.”

It remains to be seen how Obama will handle the town hall format as an incumbent president, but if there was ever a format disposed to energy and charismatic personality, it’s the town hall debate.

Town hall debates: A tradition 'younger than Lindsay Lohan'