SBS Online

By Rhiannon Elston

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney prepare to meet for a second time, this time in a 'Town Hall'-style debate that cuts out the moderator and allows voters to speak directly to the candidates.

Jonathan Bradley of the US Studies Centre explains to Rhiannon Elston why this debate could prove crucial to the outcome of the US presidential election.

RE: Hi Jonathan, the first presidential debate had an unexpected impact on the polls. Does Obama need to win this one?

JB: It was unexpected! Some estimates suggest Romney received a 5.5 per cent boost in the polls in a single day from the debate, and if that’s accurate, it’s far outside the normal influence a presidential debate can have. Obama wasn’t helped by the despair his supporters felt after the debate either — with both Republicans and Democrats saying that it was a disaster for the president, Obama’s performance became exaggerated. What was on the night lacklustre begun to be discussed by everyone involved as catastrophic. Still, whether because Romney’s bounce is subsiding or Biden’s feisty performance at the vice-presidential debates settled down rattled Democrats, Obama has regained a lot of ground since debate number one. As such, we can see that even a bad performance isn’t fatal. That said, the last thing Obama needs is his recovery to be blighted by another bad performance. One shaky debate can be put down to an off night. Two looks like a trend.

RE: Can you explain the 'Town Hall' format?

JB: The Town Hall debate format has origins deep in American history, reaching back to the days of colonial New England, when communities were small enough that democratic decisions could be made by gathering an entire village into a single meeting room. (As fans of the television program Gilmore Girls might be aware, this is a tradition that still exists in some parts of the country today.) The Town Hall as it is used in presidential debates tries to replicate the free-flowing intimacy of these early efforts in American democracy, but, in reality, it’s far too stage-managed to give anything more than the veneer of citizen participation. Sure, the audience will be made up of ordinary voters who will get to ask the candidates questions, but the attendees will be carefully selected by the Gallup polling firm and the questions screened beforehand by moderator Candy Crowley.

RE: Today's debate could generate any number of unexpected questions (although pizza topping questions are thankfully no longer on the agenda). Could we see a few fireworks?

JB: It’s not impossible, but the candidates have done everything possible to avoid that. Audience members will have their microphones switched off as soon as they’ve finished asking their questions and won’t be allowed to follow up on the candidates’ responses. Both campaigns are upset at Crowley’s intention to ask follow up questions of the candidates or to re-state the audience members’ questions. The Obama and Romney camps signed an agreement that rules out that kind of thing — but Crowley never agreed to play along. In a Town Hall debate in 1992, a voter asked a rather illogical question about the deficit. President George H.W. Bush and independent candidate Ross Perot both muffed the response, but Democratic candidate Bill Clinton had an empathetic conversation with the voter that made him look much more down-to-earth and caring than his rivals. That was great for Clinton — but no one wants to be on the losing end of that equation.

RE: After the first debate, both candidates will be looking to correct and refine some of the elements that they weren't happy with in their first debate performances. What do you think has been going on in the respective preparation rooms for both Romney and Obama?

JB: Obama looked unprepared and unengaged in the first debate, and he needs to show people that performance was anomalous. Democrats think Mitt Romney got away with presenting himself as far more moderate than he really is, and Obama will be prepping to rebut Romney’s statements forcefully and aggressively. He won’t be as dramatic as Joe Biden was in the vice-presidential debate — a president doesn’t have that luxury — but he will be looking to demonstrate that he can bring some fight to the contest. Romney should be far happier with his performance in the first debate, but he has been criticised for stretching the truth and presenting plans that are bold in conception but lacking in detail. He will want to shut down any attacks from Obama that suggest Republican plans are vague or not practical.

RE: What's your prediction as to how the candidates will handle the somewhat unpredictable nature of this debate? After the first presidential debate we heard a lot of commentary that suggested Obama's natural oratory skills didn't extend to impromptu; that he is much better on prepared speeches.

JB: This format suits Obama much better than the first one did. Obama is most comfortable giving big speeches to packed halls, but he does have an ability to connect with average voters, and he’s quick on his feet. Romney will be well-rehearsed and is a good debater — his performance the first time round wasn’t a fluke — but introducing ordinary Americans into the mix might throw him off his feet. He’s not a naturally engaging man and forcing him to deal with “real” people brings out his unfortunate tendency to sound robotic. The unpredictability also introduces the danger that he might have to talk about something he hasn’t rehearsed for, and that’s always dangerous for Mitt Romney.

RE: There has been some controversy over moderator Candy Crowley's suggestion that she will follow-up on questions asked by audience members. That sounds like a reasonable tactic; like it could add a measure of structure to the debate. Why would both campaigns want to shut out direct questions from Crowley?

JB: The classic politicians’ trick is to give the answer the candidate wants to give, regardless of the question actually asked. A Town Hall debate, without follow ups, could easily devolve into a series of stump speeches, something that would be very comfortable ground for both Obama and Romney. We saw last week in the vice presidential debate moderated by Martha Raddatz that throwing a knowledgeable and experienced journalist into the mix can make it harder for candidates to give glib answers that elide the specifics. Basically, an active moderator means the campaigns surrender some control — and, in all situations, campaigns hate to surrender control.

RE: What are some of the biggest issues of concern among voters; what are some of the questions we are likely to hear today?

JB: This is one of the advantages of the Town Hall format — the concerns of pundits and pollsters in the Beltway don’t always line up with what the American public thinks is important. I’d expect a lot of talk about the economy, and particularly questions about jobs and unemployment. (Journalists who cover politics tend to be well-educated residents of Washington, D.C., a group not as severely touched by the Great Recession, so they are liable to sometimes forget how much America cares about jobs.) I’d also be looking out for questions about social issues. We had a question about abortion in last week’s debate, but so far there hasn’t been much talk about gay rights or immigration, for instance. What would be interesting is if a question came up about something neither candidate wants to talk about — America’s use of drones, for instance, or the suspicions about the Federal Reserve that has gripped the Republican base but no serious presidential contender wants to endorse.

Watch the debate live on the SBS World News Australia website from 12pm ADST, and join us simultaneously online for an interactive discussion.

This article originally appeared on SBS Online