The Death of the Town Hall Meeting

Post-debate reaction – neither candidate did anything to “win” tonights face off in St. Louis. Like two rams attacking one another on a hilltop, Kerry and Bush proved that neither would waver from their positions. Both seemed presidential, both had a command of the facts (although it could be argued that they “fudged” each others record somewhat). As for the big question – did tonights debate move anyone still undecided or compel a voter to switch their vote? The answer is no. I believe we’re right where we were 90 minutes ago.

I do think we saw something happen tonight. We saw that the town hall meeting, which was created and mastered by Bill Clinton, was completely ineffective for Bush or Kerry. The key to meeting in a hall with real voters posing real questions is to connect. Bill Clinton knew how to use this environment to show empathy. He knew how to relate to a voter directly in a way that helped that voter see him as one would see a next door neighbor. Now, I didn’t agree with most of the policies of the Clinton era, but I do think that the town hall meeting was made for him. Since then, presidential campaigns have kept up the tradition, hoping that their candidate would pull out the same emotions and connect with the undecided voter the way Clinton did. It’s my opinion that no one has done that effectively since Bill’s last debate in 1996.

I think the town hall meeting is effective for few presidential candidates. Town hall meetings are designed for undecideds. I think that tonight, we witnessed a debate which didn’t benefit at all from this setup. With the United States as polarized as it is today, a town hall meeting debate cannot accurately represent a real audience of undecideds. The electorate of 2004 won’t benefit from tonights encounter. As long as we stay equally divided, the town hall meeting debate will sway no one. Future campaigns would be smart to look at this style of debating and be honest with themselves. Will it work with their candidate? Will it really be effective in changing electorate decisions? 

I think tonight, we saw the death of the town hall meeting format.

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