3Qs: Town hall added drama to high-stakes debate

Oct 18, 2012 by Matt Collette
Robert E. Gilbert, the Edward W. Brooke Professor of Political Science, analyzes Tuesday night’s debate between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. Credit: Mary Knox Merrill.

After a lack­luster per­for­mance by Pres­i­dent Obama in the first of the elec­tion season's three pres­i­den­tial debates, national polls showed an uptick in sup­port for Repub­lican chal­lenger Mitt Romney. But much of the nation was looking to see how Pres­i­dent Obama would respond in his second debate on Tuesday night. Northeastern University news office asked Robert E. Gilbert, the Edward W. Brooke Pro­fessor of Polit­ical Sci­ence, to ana­lyze the town hall-​​style debate, in which both can­di­dates aggres­sively made their case to the Amer­ican voting public.

How did the town-hall format impact how both candidates interacted with one another and answered questions? Did this format lead to better answers?

I think the town-​​hall format of the debate con­tributed to its being one of the most dra­matic and lively TV debates between pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates in the 50 years we've had such encoun­ters. In the past, each can­di­date has typ­i­cally stood at a podium and responded to ques­tions posed by a mod­er­ator. Last night, the mod­er­ator was assisted by ordi­nary cit­i­zens and, very sig­nif­i­cantly, the can­di­dates walked around the stage freely.

At times, they "invaded" each other's space, making the event seem more free-​​flowing and con­tentious than in the past. I don't think this led to better answers on the issues, but it did heighten the impres­sion that a real battle was being waged on the stage by two hos­tile candidates.

After Obama's poor performance in the first debate, political analysts and pundits argued that he needed to shine in Tuesday night's debate in order to stay competitive in the race. Did he live up to expectations?

Before the first debate, Obama seemed to be pulling ahead in the pres­i­den­tial race as he began to gain ascen­dancy in including Ohio, Florida and North Car­olina. But Romney scored extra­or­di­narily well in their first joint TV encounter while Obama seemed list­less and dis­tracted. This led the momentum of the cam­paign to shift notice­ably in Romney's favor.

Last night I would think that Obama did what he had to do to stop his decline. From the first moment to the last, he was artic­u­late, aggres­sive and out­spoken, men­tioning his con­cerns for the middle class at every oppor­tu­nity. In my view and according to public opinion sur­veys that I've con­sid­ered, round two went to the pres­i­dent, both as a cam­paign and morale boost.

What was each candidate's biggest strength in the debate? What was their biggest weakest?

Obama's biggest strength in last night's debate is that he exceeded expec­ta­tions. He seemed com­fort­able on the stage and took the fight assertively to his Repub­lican oppo­nent. Romney's strength was that he was artic­u­late and responded well to many of Obama's attacks.

With regard to the weakest moments for each can­di­date, I think Obama's came in response to the ques­tion about the recent vio­lence in Libya. At the last moment, he seemed to mis­s­peak, cre­ating con­fu­sion as to what he had actu­ally said.

The weakest aspect of Romney's per­for­mance is that he was on the defen­sive throughout much of the evening, being hard-​​pressed by the pres­i­dent to explain and defend sev­eral of his positions.

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