Look out, Clinton and Trump! Town hall format is a big risk

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  • Candidates have stumbled with a format in which ordinary citizens ask the questions, writes Julian Zelizer
  • Talking points and negativity are not the way to go, he says

Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)On Sunday night, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton will square off in their second debate. Unlike the last event, where the two candidates stood behind podiums as they were asked questions by moderator Lester Holt, this time it will be a town hall format where the candidates will be taking questions from a live audience, with Anderson Cooper and Martha Raddatz moderating.

The town hall debate is a very different dynamic than the standard debate format so Trump should be nervous, especially since his poor performance in the first debate and falling poll numbers raises the stakes for this event.
    The Washington Post's revelation of Trump's vulgar 2005 conversation about women has generated anger and deeper concern, and the issue can easily come up in what would be an uncomfortable moment. Trump is eager to find an opportunity to introduce the issue of Bill Clinton's infidelity into the town hall, which can easily backfire.
    And there are risks for Hillary Clinton in this kind of format as well.
    Since this kind of format became part of the presidential debate mix in 1992, some candidates have stumbled during these events, causing harm to their campaigns, while others have thrived at the back-and-forth with the audience members.
    The town hall format was an effort to bring the democratic impulses of the New England town hall meeting to the sometimes-rigid debates that began when John F. Kennedy faced off against Richard Nixon in 1960. In the famous New England town hall meetings residents would gather to debate and discuss the major issues facing their communities. These events were remembered as quintessential examples of how the colonists were determined to practice a new kind of inclusive democracy that would broaden the number of people involved in decision-making.

    Making Nixon human

    In 1968, Roger Ailes, who later ran Fox News, organized "Man in the Arena" events. These were shows on airtime purchased by the Nixon campaign showcasing average citizens asking questions (that in this case were scripted) of the Republican candidate. Ailes' goal was to make Nixon appear more human. (Ailes' events were influenced by television spots that President Dwight D. Eisenhower pioneered in 1952 when he answered scripted questions from citizens).
    President Jimmy Carter, who was elected in a moment of great distrust following the Watergate scandal, believed that the town hall offered a way for him to reach out to ordinary voters on the key issues and to reestablish confidence in government.
    During his push to sell the unpopular Panama Canal Treaties in 1978, Carter held a number of town hall meetings, where he appeared via remote cameras, to build support for this program.
    And after President Barack Obama pushed his health care program in 2009, many legislators held town hall meetings in their districts and were subject to intense crowds who came to express their opposition to the plan.

    Bush 41 stumbles

    Town halls became a part of the presidential campaign in 1992 with the second debate. President George H. W. Bush, the Republican nominee seeking re-election, showed how badly this format could go.
    During one famous interaction Bush wasn't really listening to the question. When one young woman asked "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?" Then disaster struck for the GOP. Bush, impatiently looking at his watch, stood up and said, "Well, I think the national debt affects everybody. Obviously it has a lot to do with interest rates."
    As he tried to finish, the moderator Carole Simpson interrupted him to explain, "She's saying you personally." The woman repeated her question. He said, "Well, "I'm sure it has. I love my grandchildren and I want to think that...." When interrupted again with the question of how, Bush tried to talk about making sure that education was affordable. "I'm not sure I get it," Bush acknowledged with a nervous look, "Help me with the question and I'll try to answer it." He tried again but would never get it quite right.
    Bill Clinton, who held a number of town halls while he was running in the primaries, virtually jumped off his seat, walking up to the woman and asking how it had affected her. Then he spoke about his experience as governor and watching the terrible conditions that middle-class Americans were feeling.
    "In my state, when people lose their jobs there is a good chance I will know them by their names." The woman listened carefully in what was a mesmerizing exchange. At this and other moments, he showed the capacity to display empathy as he gave his answers, biting his lip, and responding directly to the concerns of the person speaking.
    "It's a lot easier to be a good talker than a good listener," Clinton would say. He never let the other two men on the podium, Bush and the independent candidate Ross Perot, shake him or fundamentally disrupt his style with the people asking questions. It was a tour de force.
    Town hall debates are challenging for candidates who tend to stick to certain talking points. Every campaign wants to emphasize certain themes but given that the town hall questions are less predictable, candidates have to show they can think on their feet.
    Many observers credited Obama in 2008 with being able to bring back the discussion to taxes, with promises for a middle class tax cut, whatever the subject was. His campaign believed that this offered him a major advantage against Sen. John McCain in swing states where Republican supply-side economics didn't sit so well with struggling Americans.

    Body language

    Body language can also be a trap given that the candidates are sometimes seated on stools and have the opportunity to get up and walk around. This can cause problems. Al Gore faced George W. Bush in 2000. While Bush had trouble articulating some of his policy views in the standard debate, he did pretty well in relating to the people asking questions in the town hall format.
    Gore's stiff and awkward demeanor really cost him some points. When Gore stood up and walked over to Bush during one answer, he looked like a schoolyard bully. Bush deflected him with a humorous nod. The moment became a legendary example of what not to do.
    McCain would come under comedic fire after his town hall debate with Barack Obama, where he seemed to aimlessly walk around the stage and sometimes ended up blocking the camera.
    "Has Anyone Seen My Dog? Has anyone seen my little Mr. Puddles?" The Daily Show suggested as a mock internal dialogue that he was having. During another exchange, McCain called Obama "that one" which some saw as a sign of disrespect and contempt. McCain also didn't shake Obama's hand when it was over.
    During a town hall debate with supporters, McCain also learned how the audience could cause trouble when one woman said she heard that Obama' was an "Arab." McCain, with a crowd that booed him at times, had to grab the microphone from here to say, "I have to tell you. Sen. Obama is a decent person and a person you don't have to be scared of as president of the United States." Some members of the audience yelled out "liar" and "terrorist," speaking of the Democratic nominee.

    Challenges for Trump and Clinton

    On Sunday night, Donald Trump will have to show many traits that have not been evident in his campaign so far. Trump will have to actually listen to the people asking him questions. He will have to contain some of his innate anger and instinct to punch back, given that the questions are now coming from average Americans rather than representatives of the "mainstream media." And he will have to be extremely cautious in the way he moves and physically interacts both with Hillary Clinton and the people in the room.
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    Clinton, who has done many of these events and is skilled at handling this format, once again needs to use this opportunity to display some of the emotion and empathy that her husband showed back in 1992. Of all the debates, this is the one that gives her a chance to show us more of the person rather than the candidate. She will also have a chance, and must do more to take it than in the first debate, to talk about the issues that really matter with her.
    Much of her campaign, understandably so, has turned toward demonizing Trump rather than talking about herself. In the town hall it will be important to focus more on what she would do for Americans rather than what risks her opponent poses. Negative has not been the way to go in the town hall.
    The town hall debate this Sunday will be an exciting event, and it will certainly test both candidates in areas where they will be vulnerable as they grapple with the concerns of American voters. But, as with Bill Clinton in 1992, the candidate who can rise to the challenge will be able to show that he or she can connect with and respond to the anxieties facing this restless electorate.