During his first run for the presidency in 2008, I remember attending a Mitt Romney town hall meeting in New Hampshire in which a female voter emotionally described how a close family member had been paralyzed in a rugby accident as part of a question about stem cell research. One would have expected Romney to express sympathy for her tragedy, to ask the name of her relative, or in some other way try to engage her before getting to the substance of his response. Instead, Romney thanked her for the question and then launched into a highly technical answer about pluripotent stem cells.
This isn’t by any means to say that Romney is a heartless person. Quite the opposite. On a number of occasions (see here and here) I’ve written about his personal generosity. This is a generosity that goes beyond merely writing checks to charity, but getting personally involved in people’s lives – friends, neighbors, members of his church – and taking time from his busy schedule to help. The problem is that Romney’s private kindness rarely shows in public. Instead, Romney often comes across awkward, aloof and even callous. This image has not been helped by the hundreds of millions of dollars President Obama and his allies have spent in an effort to portray Romney as an out of touch rich guy who cheated on his taxes, reveled in firing people and killed a women with cancer.
I have no doubt that Romney will have a prepared answer for everything that’s expected to come up tonight. For instance, the Obama campaign has made no secret of the fact that the president intends to bring up Romney’s comments about the “47 percent” of Americans who don’t pay taxes. No doubt, Romney has practiced a comeback. But the trick with town hall debates is that audience questions introduce the element of the unexpected. Infamously, in 1992, George H.W. Bush was caught terribly off guard when a town hall debate questioner asked how the deficit had affected him personally, only reinforcing the “out of touch” image that doomed his reelection campaign. In his dominant debate performance against Obama earlier this month, Romney showed off his intelligence. Tonight, when in the town hall debate, he’ll have to demonstrate he has emotional intelligence as well.
Romney has a few things going for him on this front. To start, he’s done a lot more town hall meetings since his first run for president in 2008 and has gotten significantly better at it over the course of this campaign. Also, Obama isn’t exactly Bill Clinton at these things, either. Obama’s charisma has been based mostly around his soaring speeches to large crowds. In town hall formats, he can also come across as aloof and detached at times. Additionally, he’s vowed to be more aggressive at the debate, but that can often backfire in the town hall format (see Al Gore in 2000). Ultimately, Romney may benefit from expectations. Given the horrendous caricature that has been created for Romney, anything he does to disabuse voters of the notion that he’s Gordon Gekko on steroids could provide him with a boost. All of this said, the media will be looking to seize on anything Romney does that confirms the “out of touch” image, so he’ll have to bring his A game once again.
Recent polling has suggested that Romney’s gains after the first debate weren’t just a temporary bounce, but a more structural shift in the presidential race. If he passes the town hall test, Romney could build on those gains and perhaps even pull ahead in Ohio, which would make him the favorite to win the presidency. I don’t expect the final debate on Oct. 22 to have as much of an impact as tonight’s debate, both because it’s on foreign policy and because Americans will probably be debate weary by then. If Romney is in strong position by that point, all he’ll have to do in the final debate is demonstrate enough fluency with foreign policy to reassure voters that he can handle being commander in chief, and I expect him to be well prepared to do that. The town hall test is the more challenging one.