My least favorite debate format is coming up tonight: The Town Hall Debate.
I get the idea behind the format, "empower" voters by allowing them to ask the questions--and allow voters to see the candidates in a "more natural" setting--not the stiff, standing-behind-a-podium-or-sitting-at-a-desk-style debate that seemed to work just fine for decades.
First off, these "voter questions" aren't the impromptu queries they would appear to be. All of the questioners tonight will have been pre-selected--to ensure that someone doesn't get up there and ask Mitt Romney if he really believes that Joseph Smith read the Word of God off of gold plates through his hat--or if President Obama really believes that he was born in the US. The questions will also be worded in such a way to appear as "non-partisan" as possible--like the person asking has no political slant at all and is the elusive "undecided voter" that policticians really believe exists.
Secondly, how often have you engaged in a quality conversation with someone--while they wander around a big room? The most memorable moments from these town hall debates haven't been great statements on public policy that elevate the discussion--or even a zinger that puts one candidate on the defensive for days after. All we remember is how the candidates wander around aimlessly and look totally uncomfortable sitting on chairs that are a little bit too short for them--or a little bit too tall. Remember when George HW Bush kept looking at his watch in 1992? Or how Al Gore decided he was going to stand right next to W in 2000? And how John McCain looked like a guy trying to find BBQ Kettle Chips at the Mega-Supermarket most of the night in 2008? If you didn't see those moments live, you certainly saw the Saturday Night Live skits mocking them a week later.
And if you were one of the candidates, would you want to spend the whole night looking at the back of your opponent's head as he answers questions--and you try not to block his camera shot? Do you follow him around the room like a puppy? Do you stand as far away as possible--and hope you hear and understand everything he says? When should you sit? When should you stand? If I walk, where should I go? And at what speed? Why don't we just let the candidates concentrate on their talking points and the facts--rathen then how "casual" they look.