2016 US Election, Ray D'Cruz

Can Trump work the Town Hall format?

Ray D’Cruz

After a poor performance in the First Presidential Debate the 2016 Republican nominee Donald Trump has vowed to get more aggressive in the next debate.

It’s a strange vow; passivity wasn’t the issue. Poor tactics and a lack of substance were more serious problems for him.

It’s bigly strange when you consider how the Second Presidential Debate’s “Town Hall format” will play out.

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Mr Trump this week’s, preparing for Sunday’s Town Hall debate

In Town Hall debates audience members ask questions to candidates directly, and for the first time, moderators will ask questions that have been submitted and voted for online.

There are no podiums. Candidates perch on stools and regularly move about the stage in an effort to engage with the audience.

An overly aggressive approach from Mr Trump will impact his ability to connect with the audience. Aggression that targets Secretary Clinton in a personal way may backfire too.

Four years ago in the corresponding debate, the candidates took an aggressive approach with President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney combining strong personal critiques of each other with aggressive body language; they literally faced off at times.

The context of that debate is relevant. In their first debate Governor Romney trumped a lacklustre President with forcefulness and energy. The rematch was always going to be lively, as the challenger repeated his approach and President roared back to life.

While Mr Trump will also be tempted to hit back hard, this situation is different. With a reputation for misogyny and bullying, any trace of physical intimidation against Secretary Clinton (before 80 million people) would be a disaster.

What Governor Romney and President Obama managed in their Town Hall was carefully managed aggression. They went to the edge, but didn’t go over. Can Mr Trump exercise that kind of restrained aggression?

There are other challenges from the Town Hall format for Mr Trump. The format rewards emotional intelligence – a connection with the questioner.

To be specific, that means letting the questioner complete the question without cutting them off, responding with relevance to the issue and demonstrating empathy.

The 1992 Town Hall debate between President George H. W. Bush and Governor Bill Clinton showed the importance of emotional intelligence when handling a question. In one decisive moment millions of viewers saw a President who could not connect with the questioner, and a challenger listen and engage with empathy.

We know Mr Trump has been effective at engaging his supporters, reflecting their anger with his message that things are broken. His comfort setting is a large rally, with raucous crowds thirsty for parochial assertions.

It’s a long way from a Town Hall debate, with its independent audience and studious atmosphere. Will Mr Trump listen to the question without cutting off the questioner? Will he actually answer the question? Will he respond with empathy and respect?

Yesterday Mr Trump fronted a town hall style gathering in what looked suspiciously like debate preparation, despite his denials. It was a friendly gathering, hosted by a sympathetic host. While it may have been useful preparation, it didn’t help answer the questions above.

We know that Secretary Clinton has these capabilities. Her working class upbringing and the causes she has championed over the last 35 years will help her connect to the audience.

The Democratic Primary Debates provided a glimpse of how she engages and it was impressive. Her response to a question from an audience member about how as a leader she balances ego and humility showed honesty and self-awareness.

While the impact of these debates is often questioned, it does seem that Secretary Clinton’s strong performance in the first debate helped her arrest her sliding poll numbers and restore a lead. The Democratic candidate will be keen to keep the momentum going.

So can Mr Trump restrain his aggression and respond to the dynamics of this format while remaining authentic? That’s the billion-dollar question.

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