To win Sunday’s town hall debate, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump should take a page from Bill Clinton’s book
The two presidential candidates have approached their second debate in characteristic ways — Hillary Clinton studying, Donald Trump mocking her for it.
To ace the televised session Sunday evening, they both might roll a four-minute video snippet from the first town hall debate held almost 24 years ago. The candidate each needs to emulate: Bill Clinton.
That Clinton shared a debate stage in Richmond, Va., with Republican incumbent George H. W. Bush and independent candidate Ross Perot. All three sat on tall stools as part of an experiment to allow audience members, not professional journalists, to ask questions.
In that year of economic uncertainty came a plaintive query:
“How has the national debt personally affected each of your lives?” a woman asked. “And if it hasn’t, how can you honestly find a cure for the economic problems of the common people if you have no experience in what’s ailing them?”
Perot, a billionaire businessman, talked about how the rocky economy had pushed him to run for president. Bush, focused on the mention of the national debt, fumbled and said, “I’m not sure I get it.”
Clinton got it — the moment, if not the specific question. He walked to the edge of the stage, as close as he could get to the audience, and reached out to the woman with his arms.
“Tell me how it’s affected you again,” he asked. “You know people who’ve lost their jobs and lost their homes?”
He spoke about how, as Arkansas’ governor, “when people lose their jobs, there’s a good chance I’ll know them by their names.”
“I’ve been out here,” he added, “with people like you all over America, people that have lost their jobs, lost their livelihood, lost their health insurance.”
In 90 seconds of emotional connection, Clinton won that debate, and eventually the presidency.
Town hall debates provide enormous opportunities for candidates, but also tremendous risks. Because the questioners are everyday Americans, other voters identify with them. Candidates need to find a way to be personal, without being overly emotional. They must connect, without pandering. They must draw out contrasts without insult. They must not be too physically aggressive, nor too meek, neither threatening nor disinterested.
A town hall debate is a kind of courtship, said Republican debate strategist Brett O’Donnell; wrongly played, viewers will decide they don’t want to date “someone who mistreated a waiter or waitress in a restaurant.”
“Audiences will read an incredible amount of meaning into how you say what you say, not just what you say,” he said.
That adds tension to a 90-minute meeting that already featured high stakes, particularly for Trump. His campaign was rocked by controversy yet again Friday when the Washington Post and NBC News released a 2005 tape of him making lewd remarks about women and bragging about his sexual exploits.
Even before that, Trump’s standing had been declining in polls. Voters by margins as large as 2-1 said Clinton had won their first debate. Her standing with the public has gone up since, and his has declined.
In Sunday’s session at Washington University in St. Louis, debate experts and operatives on both sides say, Trump must demonstrate the temperament to serve as commander-in-chief after an irritated and cranky showing last time. He must develop rapport with individuals after spending most of his campaign courting giant crowds from a distant stage. He must talk about voters and their needs — and not about himself and his accomplishments.
Clinton has to sustain her advantage and reach the now-higher bar of competence she established in the first debate. To the policy expertise and gibes at Trump that marked the first debate, she must add a sense of who she is. And, if confronted by a voter with a challenging question, she needs to avoid the defensive crouch to which she has sometimes retreated in the past.
“Both have the capacity to hit home runs and both have the capacity to strike out,” said Peter Pober, a communications professor and rhetoric expert at Virginia’s George Mason University.
“If Trump treats this the same way he treats big speeches and other forms of debate, it will be a huge mistake,” he said. And Clinton “needs to be less lawyerly and willing to let us into her emotional life.”
The audience’s role in the town hall can make simple actions by the candidates into campaign stumbles.
In that 1992 debate, Bush took a few seconds to look at his watch. He may have simply wanted to know how much time he had to make his case. To viewers, it looked like boredom.
“He sent a message: ‘When is this over?’ ” said O’Donnell. “And Bill Clinton seemed to be having the time of his life.”
Clinton has had repeated opportunities to learn how to deal with the format. Although she is often seen by voters as emotionally aloof, in primary season town halls and more recent campaign events she has demonstrated a more personable side. In one session in Nevada in February, she gave voters a sense of herself when asked how she would harness forgiveness were she elected president.
“I could not be standing here if I had not been forgiven many times and if I had not been able to forgive, myself, those who I thought had in some way disappointed or wronged me,” she replied. “I, as a person of faith, believe profoundly in the power of forgiveness.”
Weeks earlier, she was asked by a rabbi at a New Hampshire town hall how she balanced ambition and humility. The question ushered in a striking moment — a lengthy contemplation rare in a political setting.
“I have had to deal and struggle with a lot of these issues about ambition and humility, about service and self-gratification, all of the human questions that all of us deal with, ” she said, then criticized her own campaign style.
“I never thought I would do this. And so I have had to come to grips with how much more difficult it often is for me to talk about myself than to talk about what I want to do for other people, or to tell stories about, you know, the man I met in Rochester who — whose AIDS medicine is no longer affordable… I’m constantly trying to balance how do I assume the mantle of a position as essentially august as president of the United States and not lose track of who I am, what I believe in and what I want to do to serve?”
Trump has not lifted the veil to that degree. And unlike other candidates, his communication during the campaign has largely been one-way: a speech delivered by him to an applauding audience.
His campaign, a rock-star tour with its huge halls, big crowds and occasionally outrageous behavior, has been about the cultural and economic resentments of his supporters. But he has delved little into their individual stories, save for a group of recurring guests whose relatives were killed by immigrants in the country illegally. He has rarely talked about himself other than to praise his business acumen or smarts.
A rare glimpse came Thursday during a campaign event in Sandown, N.H. Asked by radio host Howie Carr about an early memory, Trump recounted a story he has told before about listening to his father, a developer, talk on the phone.
“He’d be on the telephone negotiating with a plumber or an electrician or a sheet rocker and I would hear this, and I would be playing with blocks at his knee,” he said. “I’m on the floor and I’d be listening and he just — it was always so vivid.” Then, as if that was enough, he moved on to criticize American leaders.
The Sandown event had been expected to be a practice session for Sunday’s event; his host made a point of telling Trump he would hold him to debate-style time limits if Trump agreed. But Trump went on to break almost every rule of town hall debating, leveling caustic and false accusations about Clinton, impugning reporters by name and as a group, bragging about polls he said showed him winning, and rambling through his responses without conversing with his audience.
“Forget debate prep,” he said at one point. At another, he jibed at Clinton’s repeated practice sessions.
“That’s not debate prep, she’s resting,” he said.
Clinton on Tuesday said she was doing what she had done before the last debate, the one that boosted her campaign.
“Preparation,” she said, “is important.”
3:25 p.m.: This article was updated to add information about a 2005 tape of Trump making lewd remarks about women.
The article was first published at 10:20 a.m.
Get our Essential Politics newsletter
The latest news, analysis and insights from our politics team.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.