Town hall format for next debate poses challenges for Trump, Clinton

Town hall presidential debate

The presidential nominees are taking different approaches in preparing for Sunday’s town hall debate at Washington University in St. Louis.

Apart from a few fundraisers and campaign events earlier this week, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton largely focused on preparations. Donald Trump held a town hall event Thursday night in New Hampshire, but denies it was practice.

The debate format will have the candidates fielding questions from a crowd, and they will not have a podium to support them.

Candidates standing behind a podium is the traditional debate format, and it has its advantages.

“It’s the way politicians most commonly speak, is behind a podium. It’s very comfortable for them. And it actually provides a little bit of separation from the audience, which I think a lot of candidates like,” Republican strategist Dan Senor told CBS News correspondent Chip Reid.

“Sure, and it’s a predictable center of gravity, right? You know where the moderator is,” Democratic strategist Michael Feldman added. “You know where the camera is. So you’re delivering your lines in a very fixed way, and so it in that sense, it’s very secure.” 

We asked Senor and Feldman to demonstrate what happens when candidates lose the power of the podium, as Trump and Clinton will on Sunday.
“How do you feel now?” Reid asked.

“Exposed,” Feldman said.

“Naked,” Senor said.

“You’re not,” Reid said.

“I know. No, but it’s -- you sitting in the stool where you have to kind of look casual, right? No one sits on a stool looking presidential,” Senor said.

“You’re told in prep to relax. Let me tell you there’s nothing relaxing about this format,” Feldman said. 

The challenges unique to this form of debate were evident when the first town hall was held in 1992.

“President Bush answered a question about the economy, and he gave an answer that was somewhat removed,” Feldman said. 

Clinton vs. Bush in 1992 Debate by Seth Masket on YouTube

“How has the national debt personally affected each of your lives?” an audience member, Marisa Hall Summers, asked.

“It has a lot to do with interest rates. It has--” George H. W. Bush started saying before he was interrupted. 

“You. On a personal basis, how has it affected you?” Summers asked again. 

“Well, I’m sure it has,” Bush responded. “I love my grandchildren. I want to think that --” 

“How?” Summers said.

“I want to think that they’re going to be able to afford an education,” Bush said. 

“Gov. Clinton at the time took the same question, walked directly out to, I believe it was a woman, who asked the question,” Feldman said. 

“You know people who’s lost their lives and lost their homes?” Clinton asked Summers.

“Uh huh,” Summers said. 

Twenty-four years later, Summers still remembers the impact of her question and has some advice for the current candidates.

“Be honest, don’t be evasive because we can see right through that. And speak from the heart,” Summers said. 

“Let’s talk about the geometry, kind of the physicality of this. Do you need to get up or is it okay to stay in the chair?” Reid asked.

“I think you do need to get up, but ... you gotta pick your moments,” Senor said. “So it looks weird to be walking around the entire time and it looks equally weird to be sitting down the entire time.”

Space matters too. Don’t be afraid to get close to the audience, just don’t get too close to the other candidate.  

“I remember with Romney and Obama in 2012, they got really in each others’ faces,” Senor said. “I mean, I remember being uncomfortable watching it in the green room.”

So who has the advantage in this format? 

“Hillary Clinton does just because she is a serious student when it comes to debate prep and Donald Trump is not,” Senor said. “Unless you are willing to put in the hours, put on the miles and dedicate real time to preparation, recreating these town hall situations, there’s no substitute for that.”

No matter how rehearsed the candidates are come Sunday, our experts say to expect surprises. 

“Here’s a prediction. There’ll be something that will happen during that 90 minutes that we’ll be talking about all day Monday, all day Tuesday, all day Wednesday. And none of us can predict what that moment is,” Feldman said.

“And is it more likely to involve Hillary or Donald?” Reid asked.

“Anybody’s guess,” Feldman said.

“My experience is if you want to bet on unpredictability that’s gonna dominate the news, it’s pretty safe that it’s something Trump said,” Senor said.