The challenges of a town hall debate

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JEFF GREENFIELD: This is what most debates look like—the candidates at a lectern.

JEFF GREENFIELD: And many recent Presidential debates have featured the candidates and the moderator sitting down at a table.

JEFF GREENFIELD: But tomorrow’s debate features a very different format: a “town hall” meeting, in which undecided voters—selected by the Gallup organization—put questions directly to the candidates. It’s a format that offers special opportunities—and pitfalls.

JEFF GREENFIELD: For instance—a question can sometimes be unclear—as in this example from 1992.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: How has the national debt personally affected each of your lives? And if it hasn’t, how can you honestly find a cure for the economic problems of the common people if you have no experience in what’s ailing them?

JEFF GREENFIELD:President George H.W. Bush was clearly confused by what she was asking.

GEORGE H.W. BUSH: Well, I think the national debt affects everybody.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: You, on a personal basis — how has it affected you?

CAROLE SIMPSON: Has it affected you personally?

GEORGE H.W. BUSH: I’m not sure I get — help me with the question and I’ll try to answer it.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Well, I’ve had friends that have been laid off from jobs.

BILL CLINTON: Tell me how it’s affected you, again. You know people who’ve lost their jobs and lost their homes?

JEFF GREENFIELD: Bill Clinton, by contrast, quickly reached out for a personal connection.

BILL CLINTON: When a factory closes, I know the people who ran it. When the businesses go bankrupt, I know them.

JEFF GREENFIELD:The format, unhinged from lecterns and tables, allow the candidates much more movement. But this can be a double-edged sword. In 2000, Vice President Al Gore decided to move into Governor Bush’s personal space, perhaps to create a sense of dominance. But watch:

JEFF GREENFIELD:That non-verbal gesture proved to be the most memorable moment of the entire debate.

MITT ROMNEY: How much did you cut licenses and permits on federal lands and federal waters?

BARACK OBAMA: Governor Romney, here’s what we did.

JEFF GREENFIELD: In the 2012 town hall…Mitt Romney and President Obama were on their feet so much, it felt at times more like a duel than a debate.

MITT ROMNEY: “Mr. President, have you looked at your pension?”

BARACK OBAMA: I don’t look at my pension; it’s not as big as yours, so it doesn’t take as long.

CANDY CROWLEY: If I could have you sit down, Governor Romney. Thank you.

JEFF GREENFIELD: It is moments like these that make the town hall meeting, the most unpredictable, and for the candidates, the riskiest format of all.

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