Analyzing debate questions: Why the town hall style is unique

Photo by Gage Skidmore

Sunday night’s second presidential debate will look very different from the last showdown between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton on September 26. Following a format first used in 1992, the candidates will answer questions posed not by a journalist moderator, but by voters in the auditorium and online.

If past town halls are any guide, Sunday’s debate will bring focus not just to what the candidates say, but to how they present themselves while engaging with the audience. It will also provide the opportunity for individual voters to bring their experiences and priorities to a national stage–a format that has, at times, resulted in unusual questions.

In 1992’s inaugural town hall debate, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ross Perot shared the stage. That year, and for the next three election cycles, moderators served as little more than traffic cops, keeping time and instructing candidates when it was their turn to respond. In 2008, however, the Commission on Presidential Debates granted the moderators more leeway, allowing them to follow up on audience questions or redirect the discussion toward a related issue.

Often in town hall debates, personal character takes center stage. Voters want to know if candidates can relate to issues facing the American people. Even questions centered on hot campaign topics are often framed to elicit how candidates feel about an issue on a personal level. Instead of simply asking about a candidate’s policies or legislation they want to enact, questions are more likely to touch on understanding why the candidates hold certain beliefs.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

This year’s town hall seems likely to follow much the same pattern. As noted in our first analysis of debate questions through history, voters are particularly uneasy about Trump’s and Clinton’s character. A September Gallup poll showed that only 33 percent of Americans felt “good or great” about a Clinton win, while that percentage dipped to 25 for a Trump win. In a separate Gallup poll, 64 percent of Americans viewed Trump unfavorably, while 54 percent viewed Clinton unfavorably.

Viewers of this Sunday’s debate, moderated by CNN’s Anderson Cooper and ABC News’s Martha Raddatz, can expect questions that will zero in on this lack of trust. The voters in the auditorium Sunday night, selected by Gallup, are all undecided.

CJR analyzed questions from the six previous town hall style debates to identify what makes them different from the other debate formats. Here’s what we found:

 

Town halls are unique

While the town hall format has, in the past, resulted in standard questions about the economy, military intervention, and healthcare, it has also allowed voters to touch on issues more specific to their personal priorities. Journalists may think they have their fingers on the pulse of the country, but town hall questions let Americans address concerns that may not be focal points of the news cycle. The death penalty, climate change, voter engagement, and women’s rights are all issues that have appeared in past town halls.

The unique format has resulted in some memorable moments. In the first town hall in 1992, a woman asked the three candidates how national debt had affected them personally. Bush and Perot struggled with the question before Clinton, perhaps the most naturally adept politician of the past 30 years, knocked it out of the park with the following exchange: 

The way Clinton approached the question highlighted another distinction of the town hall format. Instead of standing behind a podium or sitting at a desk, candidates are free to roam. In his answer, Clinton walked right to the edge of the stage and spoke softly and directly to the woman who had asked the question. Minutes before, as the woman began her question, Bush infamously glanced at his watch, a gesture interpreted as a lack of interest in her concerns, and more broadly, the views of ordinary voters.

Body language also played a role in 2000, when Al Gore decided to walk bizarrely close to George W. Bush as Bush answered a question, as if trying to physically intimidate him. Bush paused, looked over at Gore, and smiled. The audience laughed, giving Bush points for appearing calm and relatable.

Following her first debate with Trump, Clinton was credited with maintaining a calm and collected demeanor. This made her seem more genuine and relatable, especially in contrast to Trump’s clear and growing irritability throughout the debate. That said, Trump has demonstrated his ability to excite voters on the trail and engage with them directly in a compelling way, which could benefit him in a debate of this kind.

 

Some town hall debate questions are downright strange

Although questions are vetted and selected by debate organizers, a few oddballs have managed to slip through the cracks over the years. Voters have occasionally stumbled through their time in the spotlight, or asked muddled questions. Sometimes, the queries seem to come out of left field.

 From 2000:

“I’m very concerned about the morality of our country now. TV, movies, the music that our children are, you know, barraged with every day. And I want to know if there’s anything that can be worked out with the–Hollywood, or whoever, to help get rid of some of this bad language and whatever, you know. It’s just bringing the country down. And our children are very important to us and we’re concerned about their education at school. We should be concerned about their education at home, also. Thank you.”

 From 1992:

“Could we cross our hearts? It sounds silly here, but could we make a commitment? You know, we’re not under oath at this point, but could you make a commitment to the citizens of the US to meet our needs–and we have many–and not yours again?”

 

New ways to ask a question

One new wrinkle on Sunday will come in the form of questions submitted online. Although past debates have included online questions, the Commission on Presidential Debates has this year embraced a proposal put forth by the bipartisan Open Debate Coalition under which anyone can submit a question at PresidentialOpenQuestions.com. The questions will then be submitted to the public for voting. While candidates could conceivably prepare for all the most popular online questions, the moderators are under no obligation to ask any of them. Advocates of the system feel that by allowing a public vote on the questions, the debate will touch on subjects most pertinent to a broad swath of the population. Cooper and Raddatz have agreed to consider asking the 30 most popular queries.

According to the site, more than two million votes have been cast for almost 13,000 questions so far. The most popular question to date, with over 49,000 votes: “Would you support requiring criminal background checks for all gun sales?”

While voter questions may lack the polish of those posed by a professional journalist, they can occasionally cut through policy and personality to get to the heart of an important issue. In the 2000 presidential town hall debate, a young teacher stood and said, to appreciative laughter from the crowd: “My sixth-grade class at St. Claire’s School wanted to ask, of all these promises you guys are making and all the pledges, will you keep them when you’re in office?”

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Carlett Spike and Pete Vernon are CJR Delacorte Fellows.