When Donald Trump steps onto the stage Sunday night, he might as well be juggling a container or two of nitroglycerin. It's not just that he enters the hall at Washington University in St. Louis already on the defensive and badly damaged by the new revelation that he made comments about women so lewd and offensive that his party is in a state of panic, with even House Speaker Paul Ryan declaring he was "sickened" and canceling an appearance with the GOP candidate. Nor is Trump's biggest problem the continuing fallout from his underwhelming first debate. It's that the format of Sunday's debate—a town hall meeting where an audience of undecided voters asks the questions—poses the distinct possibility of a full-blown train wreck. It's a format almost designed to highlight just about every weakness of character and temperament of the Republican nominee.
At first glance, this may seem like an odd assertion. Doesn't Trump feed off audiences? Doesn't he gain energy from the crowds that pack the halls for his rallies? In fact, Trump is something of a performance artist, sometimes free-associating, sometimes teasing the crowd until he delivers the greatest hits they hunger for ("What are we gonna do?" "Build a wall! Build a wall!" "Who's gonna pay for it?" "Mexico! Mexico!")
Story Continued Below
And that's precisely the problem. The town hall audience has not gathered to celebrate Trump (or Clinton), but to question them. What the format demands is not performance but engagement, and something more than the simple sound bites at which Trump excels. In just about every past debate, the candidates leave their stools to stride toward the questioner; they make sure to fold their names into the answers ("Well, Jeremy, that's a key point?"). They maintain eye contact, and use the question to offer their five-point plan on education, or their approach to job creation. It's a format where the moderators—in this case, ABC's Martha Raddatz and CNN's Anderson Cooper—have the power to brace a candidate with a follow-up if the question has been avoided.
Given Trump's approach to policy questions, it is fair to say there may well be a good deal of such follow-up, especially on issues involving women. That's something that has been distinctly absent in the faux town meetings Trump has held with such relentless inquisitors as Sean Hannity and Howie Carr. It is an exchange for which he is distinctly unprepared. Something similar happened Thursday night, when Trump flubbed another town-hall rehearsal in Sandown, N.H., even though it was moderated by a friendly, conservative radio host and the crowd was hand-picked by his campaign. As Politico recorded, "While Sunday's debate will stretch for 90 minutes without a bathroom break, Trump bolted from his town hall in Sandown after barely more than one-third of that time."
Further, the questions at town halls, while always sincere and high-minded, can often drift into vagueness. It's up to the candidate to find in such a question a nugget that can be exploited. Even experienced politicians can stumble. During the first town hall debate in 1992, a questioner asked President George W. Bush:
How has the national debt personally affected each of your lives? 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?"
The president tried to respond, but was clearly unsure of just what the questioner meant.
BUSH: Well, I think the national debt affects everybody.
QUESTIONER: You personally.
BUSH: Are you suggesting that if somebody has means that the national debt doesn't affect them?
QUESTIONER: I know people who cannot afford to pay the mortgage on their homes, their car payment. I have personal problems with the national debt. But how has it affected you, and if you have no experience in it, how can you help us if you don't know what we're feeling?
It was left to Bill Clinton to seize the moment by walking right up to the questioner and asking, in his best I-feel-you-pain voice, "Tell me how it's affected you again. … You know people who've lost their jobs and lost their homes?… In my state, when people lose their jobs, there's a good chance I'll know them by their names. When a factory closes, I know the people who ran it. When the businesses go bankrupt, I know them."
It's the kind of response that comes after you've spent countless hours in such forums. It's not an experience with which Trump is familiar. Hillary Clinton is.
The task is even tougher when a candidate is faced with hostile questions. At NBC's "Commander-in-Chief" town hall last month, retired Naval Flight Officer Jon Lester questioned Clinton about her emails this way: "How can you expect those such as myself who were and are entrusted with America's most sensitive information to have any confidence in your leadership as president when you clearly corrupted our national security?"
Now ask yourself: What do we know about how Donald Trump answers hostile or even challenging questions. How would you grade him on the issue of "keeps his composure and self-control," especially after this weekend, and considering the pressure that is now on him to attack Hillary Clinton in an all-or-nothing effort? Now remember that the questions are posed not by professional, highly paid journalists whom the public sometimes enjoys seeing flayed, but by regular people whom the Trump people will not be able to vet. The prospect of Trump denouncing the question, charging bias, implying that the questioner is a Clinton stooge, or perhaps commenting on his or her appearance, is a possibility I've never before even contemplated in the run-up to a presidential debate. It's very much on the table Sunday night.
So is direct confrontation. Because the candidates are free to move with mic in hand, they are sometimes—literally—face to face. This is a delicate choreography that can easily go badly for a candidate with the wrong moves. No single town hall debate moment is more noted than the time in 2000 when Al Gore decided to invade George W. Bush's space. This was, according to one of his senior aides, no spontaneous move; during mock debates, aides had even marked on the floor how far the vice president was to move.
As Bush was in the middle of this sentence to the audience, "That's what the question in this campaign is about. It's not only what's your philosophy and what's your position on issues…" Gore stood up and walked toward Bush. "… But can you get things done?" Bush continued without a beat, then glanced at Gore and gave him a quick, curt nod. The audience broke into laughter, and for all practical purposes, the debate was over. Whatever point Gore was trying to make with his orchestrated buttinsky moment, he failed.
Town hall debates have been filled with such significant "nonverbal" moments—George H.W. Bush glancing his watch in 1992, as if he could not wait to leave; John McCain wandering about the debate hall in 2008 as Obama spoke; Obama and Romney, both on their feet, engaging in rapid-fire exchanges four years ago, like this one:
ROMNEY I don't think anyone really believes that you're a person who's going to be pushing for oil and gas and coal. …You'll get your chance in a moment. I'm still speaking.
ROMNEY: And the answer is I don't believe people think that's the case—
OBAMA: Well, if you're asking a question, I'm going to answer.
ROMNEY: That wasn't the question.
ROMNEY: That was a statement.
Or this one:
ROMNEY: Any investments I have over the last eight years have been managed by a blind trust. And I understand they do include investments outside the United States, including in—in Chinese companies.
Mr. President, have you looked at your pension? Have you looked at your pension?
OBAMA: I've got to say…
ROMNEY: Mr. President, have you looked at your pension?
OBAMA: You know, I—I don't look at my pension. It's not as big as yours so it doesn't take as long.
Point, Obama. But Romney held his own with poise. Can Trump?
In one sense, Trump may relish the chance to confront Clinton face to face. At 6 feet, 2 inches, he's more than half a foot taller than she is; a height difference a riser behind her lectern erased, but one that will be obvious on a town hall floor. On the other hand, as Clinton' Senate foe in 2000, Rick Lazio, learned when he strode to her lectern to present her with an agreement on campaign costs, that kind of gesture can seem a lot like bullying.
Most fundamentally, a town hall debate is a civics exercise; the name itself evokes a New England village where neighbors gather to decide whether the schoolyard needs new equipment, or whether it's time for a traffic light on Main Street. The kind of high decibel, give-and-take that works in a packed arena does not play well before an audience of a few hundred people with serious issues on their minds.
The upside for Trump is that if—in this challenging arena—he can be a calm, reasonable advocate for new policies at home and abroad; if he can be gracious, even self-deprecating in the face of critical scrutiny; if he can display a sense of humor and a sense that he has ideas to meet the grievances that he has mined, he can erase the damage of that first debate, and begin to turn his campaign around.
And if my forehand was a bit crisper, I could be at Wimbledon next summer.