The second of the Presidential debates will commence tonight and it's a town hall format. Questions, screened by the moderator, will be asked by undecided voters picked by the Gallup polling organization. The candidate will have a two minute response. And then a follow up 1 minute response from a moderator prompt.
Because of the different format of "debate", the candidates are going to have to do a tricky dance. It goes as follows:
1. Thank the questioner. Praise the question and rephrase/repeat it as a stall tactic.
2. Speak in generalities related to the question.
3. Explain what's needed to answer the question. Give examples.
4. Pivot to the other candidate and explain why the other guy's answer is worse.
5. Closing statement. Thank the questioner again.
And then they have to do it in a way that makes them look good. This is especially important for Romney, as he is still perceived to be a rich, out-of-touch, old white guy.
So for example, one of the people might ask, "Governor Romney, my name is Joe Sixpack. I'm currently underwater on my house and I'm struggling to make payments on the mortgage. And there are millions of people in America in my same situation. What would your administration do to help people like me?"
His answer should be something along the lines of this:
"Well, Joe. First off I want to thank you for your question . It touches on a very important subject in America right now. And that's this: home prices have plummeted in the recession and people are struggling to get by (1).
And in order to find a solution, we first have to identify the problem. And the problem is this: we have a weak economy. And a weak economy means there aren't enough jobs to go around. Less jobs means there are fewer people with money to spend, and that lowers demand for things like homes, which in turn lower prices (2).
Now, there are a few things that the government can do to help get the economy moving again. Lowering taxes on the middle class is one way. I believe that you know how to spend your own money better than the government. Government getting out of the way of business is another way. Gibson Guitar Company had its building raided by armed Federal officers on allegations that they were in violation of a law that's over 100 years old about endangered wood imported from India. It's hard to run a business when the Feds can put you out of business for violating any one of the 80,000 pages of rules and regulations in the Federal Register. (3)
During the President's time in office, there have been 42 consecutive months with unemployment above 8%. Prior to that, since 1950, there have only been 39 months with unemployment above that mark. It's clear that this Administration has failed when it comes to the economy (4).
Under my Administration, I'd put into place policies that will help our economy grow again, to get people jobs that pay well. You'll start to see the value of your home go up again. And it'll get easier for you to pay your mortgage. Thank you. (5)"
I clocked that at 1 minute and 50 seconds. Romney is a pretty fast speaker, so he could probably get it done 15 seconds faster. You can use the extra time to continue to lambast the other candidate, or give more examples supporting your answer.
It's still going to be much harder to attack the other guy. Because it's not really a debate so much as a joint Q&A session with the proles. Both candidates will have a balancing act to perform. They need to craft their answers in a way that makes them look better to the TV audience and also answer the questioner without making it look like it's merely something to acknowledge before ripping into the other candidate.
Since Obama had such a disastrous first outing, expectations are going to be lower for the undecided voters but higher for the base. But he can't come out swinging otherwise he'll look phony and inauthentic. A town hall debate isn't a place where you can easily attack your opponent. You have to make sure that it's relevant to both the questioner and make sure it doesn't come off as canned for the TV audience.
As for Romney, because he gained so much ground in the first debate, expectations are going to be higher. He needs to continue looking like a viable alternative for President. But he also needs to show that he can relate to the voters at home and in the live audience. If he does that, he'll gain ground.
Romney is at a disadvantage here. If he fights the debate to a draw, the President stabilizes and will use its superior ground game to eek out a win on Election Day. Because the third debate is Obama's turf, and Romney is a lot weaker in the eyes of voters when it comes to foreign policy. This is his best chance to gain some more momentum.
For Romney, victory hinges on his performance in the second debate.