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Monday, October 15, 2012

What you need to know about Tuesday's Town Hall Debate

The second presidential debate this election cycle is building a lot of press and interest.  After the trouncing Obama received at the hands of Romney in the first debate, Democrats are looking to see if Obama can rebound after apparently being caught flat footed.  Republicans are looking to see if Romney can deliver another victory that would almost assuredly be a knockout blow.  However, what many people might not know is how this debate is unique, how precarious it is for both candidates, and how its moderator, Candy Crowley, could undermine its value.

First off, what is a Town Hall style debate?  It functions just like a "Town Hall" meeting in which every day people will be able to directly ask questions of the person on stage. But in this debate setting, there will be two presidential candidates answering the questions.  Just like how the conventional debates give us a chance  to see a candidate candidly without all the usual spin, this gives the candidates a chance to see which questions matter to us (under the assumption that the questions asked are generally representative of our nation's citizenry as a whole).   And more importantly, it allows the country to see how a candidate interacts with 'every day people'.  

I find myself believing that Romney is going to be at a disadvantage here.  While I really believe all the stories I see about how people meeting Romney find him to be warm, genuine, and caring, those anecdotes aren't in the context of someone asking tough, pointed, big questions.   I've seen this all too often among successful businessmen.  Because of their success, they're pretty sure they have the right answer.  And when they encounter what they believe to be 'wrong thinking', they might take on a lecturing tone or disparage the person's assertion.  The problem is while a businessman tends to have the luxury to tell people underneath him 'tough answers', this won't really work here.  And while I do not doubt Romney's personal sincerity, he needs to be mindful to treat these people as the potential customers they are instead of potential employees.  The latter I think is what has turned people off in the past.  Even though his answers can be spot on and correct in delivering the truth, it's that "I'm right and I don't care if your feelings get hurt because of it" that makes people think he doesn't care.   Which he still does, but it's like when a parent makes the right decision that the child doesn't agree with, the child will still cry and probably not like their parents for a few minutes.  If Romney is going to pull this out, he will definitely need to empathize.  

As a slight, aside prediction:  Romney will end up doing well empathizing.   And it will surprise a lot of people since the media and the Obama campaign has done well to portray him as aloof and out of touch.

As for Obama, he'll have the innate advantage just because he's done so much to make himself look like a down to earth every day guy like you and me.  I mean, that's all he's been doing the last few months.  Interviews on the View and on Letterman.  Slow jamming the news with Jimmy Fallon.  Mucking it up with celebrities.  He's worked hard to be the coolest president in history.  So a town hall meeting where he can connect with people up close should be play right into his hands.  Right?  Well, not so fast.  If there's one thing that will do in Obama, it's his own arrogance.  See, just like how Romney is warm and genuine at his campaign events, Obama's coolness relies heavily on him being accepted up front and not being challenged.  And if you need an idea of how he changes when he is challenged, just look at his behavior at the first debate.  Like most "cool guys", he's great and all until you start getting on his case about not meeting his responsibilities and duties.  He's also come out and said he's not going to be so "polite" (toward Romney) this time around.  If Obama starts to get nasty with Romney, due to some tough questions exposing his failures, the public will pick up on that.  And if Romney keeps his cool while that's going on, it'll be just as disastrous for Obama as the first debate was.

There is one other thing you need to know about this debate is how influential a role Candy Crowley is going to have in it.  Unlike the original town hall debate in 1992 where the audience had pretty much carte blanche to ask whatever they wanted, this year's debate requires questions to be submitted to Ms. Crowley so she can pick and choose not only which questions get asked, but in what order they get asked, and also to formulate her own follow up questions.  This means that she will control the question narrative.  The implications are quite obvious.  She can easily choose the questions that are most beneficial to Obama while at the same time forming rebuffing questions meant to keep Romney on the defensive.

Prediction:  Expect to see Crowley ask far more follow ups of Romney and even interrupt him more (especially when he's about to get into the meat of his response).

In addition to this, and surprisingly, both campaigns are worried that she's going to essentially take over the question asking by asking more of her own questions as opposed to letting the audience ask their own.  Republicans are worried for the same reason they're always worred in debates: liberal favoritism.  The Obama campaign is worried that Crowley, also known for being "tough" and resistant to being badgered, might ask some stinging fact checking questions on Obama.  Naturally, the latter sounds delightful to me, this ultimately takes away from this being a debate where the candidates connect with every day citizens asking questions.

As I was saying when some liberals ridiculously claimed Raddatz the winner of the VP debate (I mean seriously, the moderator is the winner? Please), the moderator should be there to keep things civil and on track.  Nothing more, nothing less.  That's why they're called moderators and not interviewers.  Their presence, if doing a good job, should be transparent.   And while I know that won't be the case, it's still worth noting.

As to how it will turn out, it's very difficult to say. Both candidates have their potential pitfalls.  Romney with his businessman lecturing and Obama with his,well, academic lecturing.   People hate being lectured to.   Whoever does the better at empathizing will win.  While initially at a disadvantage, I think that will play out as a surprising strength for Romney when he does make that vital connection with every day voters.  And it will stand out even more so when he does it despite a president who'll fall back on pandering rhetoric and a moderator that will do her best to thwart him.