If next week’s presidential debate occurs, it’ll likely be a doozy. That’s because it will have a town-hall format, with questions posed by uncommitted voters recruited by Gallup. While televised presidential debates began in 1960, the first town hall was in 1992, a contest between President George H.W. Bush, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton and Dallas businessman Ross Perot.
Scheduled for next Thursday in Miami, the debate will feature C-Span’s Steve Scully as human time clock. As moderator, he’ll attempt to keep President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden to two-minute answers and one-minute rejoinders. That’ll be tough. This year’s first debate showed that these combatants will interrupt each other and show as little respect for time limits as Burt Reynolds had for speed limits in “Smokey and the Bandit.” Let’s hope Mr. Scully fares better than Sheriff Buford T. Justice.
Most campaigns view town halls as one-on-one conversations between two people—an ordinary American and a presidential candidate—that are observed by tens of millions on TV. Rather than overwhelm voters with information, the prevailing theory is that candidates should strive for empathy and “likability,” working to connect emotionally with voters. Mr. Biden is comfortable doing that; he frequently draws on his personal tragedies to make a connection. But Mr. Trump could get bonus points by surprising viewers with compassionate notes.
That doesn’t mean it all has to be touchy-feely. Often unpredictable, the town-hall format has provided plenty of rock-’em-sock-’em moments over the years as candidates go after each other. In 2004, President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry traded blows for all 90 minutes. Mr. Kerry attacked the incumbent for mismanaging the Iraq war. and Mr. Bush painted the Massachusetts brahmin as a flip-flopper and weak at a moment of danger when America needed steady leadership.
After shredding Sen. John McCain in 2008’s town hall as personally responsible for the Wall Street crash, Barack Obama knew he wanted to go at challenger Mitt Romney hard and early in 2012. He waited only 45 seconds at their Hofstra University town hall before ripping into the former Massachusetts governor as friend to the ultrarich and enemy of the middle class.
These three town halls illustrate the most important lesson from the format: Use every answer to every question to advance your narrative about your opponent.
Yet nailing an opponent is one thing; repelling the audience is another. This time around, another evening of venomous attacks would hurt whichever candidate is seen as the instigator. This is where the format can help. It’s better to engage indirectly by telling the questioner how wrong the other guy is than to address a criticism directly to your adversary.
You don’t want to get too hot in a town-hall debate. Debaters who lose their tempers often lose the crowds, while calm—especially while launching and receiving verbal assaults—usually wins the night. Surprisingly, Mr. Biden often lost his cool in debates during the Democratic primaries, and he did so quickly in last week’s clash.
It is better to attack your opponent by expressing disappointment rather than anger, and about the only time to address him directly is to settle an argument. To Mr. Romney’s question, “Have you looked at your pension?” Mr. Obama replied, “It’s not as big as yours.”
Answer every question. Don’t duck. But principles are better than laundry lists, though well-placed facts and third-party validations are dandy. Covid-19 could play a central role: Mr. Trump must clearly explain what he has done and be prepared to reproach Mr. Biden for Monday-morning quarterbacking. The former vice president should be prepared to do cleanup on Aisle 4: his statements and those of his advisers as this pandemic began show they had it wrong.
Little actions can matter a lot. Bush glanced at his watch in a 1992 debate. That served as a declaration to many observers that he was bored and eager to be done with the event.
Finally, remember 2016. Hillary Clinton appeared to have won all three debates, especially the raucous town hall to which Mr. Trump invited as his guests four women who had accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault. He then called Mrs. Clinton a “liar” and a “devil” with “hate in her heart.” This led CNN’s David Gergen to write, “Whatever chance Donald Trump still had at capturing the White House largely evaporated.” We know how that turned out.
Still, Team Trump would be foolish to squander another debate. The president is in dire straits with less than four weeks to mount one of history’s biggest political comebacks. He has little margin for error.