Analysis: Town Hall Debate Questions Should Not Be Screened

By John Celock

Town hall debates give audience members the chance to ask questions of candidates and serve as a way to bring up a wider array of topics, not just those being discussed at length by the media.

Sunday night’s town hall format presidential debate featured questions that had been pre-selected by the moderators and then moderator directed follow-ups. The two moderators, Anderson Cooper and Martha Raddatz made themselves the stars of the debate, with a focus on questions they asked rather than the audience questions.

The main focus of a town hall debate should be to get in as many questions from the audience as possible and let them drive the topics. If you look at the questions asked on Sunday night, they were almost exactly the same as ones that the moderators would have likely asked. This is surprising. Audience asked questions would have generated similar topics on subjects like health care, taxes, energy and foreign policy, but would have also included topics that normally come up. This could have included some high profile issues like abortion and same sex marriage, but also issues that are big in Missouri like agriculture and police issues.

Any town hall meeting you go to you see a wide range of issues being brought up including the more regional topics or topics that might not be the front page ones. This allows the candidates to have less ability to prepare for every topic and also opens up the discussion. With the exception of the Trump Tapes and Bill Clinton’s past, almost every topic addressed on Sunday were the same topics addressed at the first debate. Great for the moderators and a press corps focused on a narrow set of issues but bad for the voters.

The set-up allowed the moderators more time to prepare questions that were in line with the topics they selected and be able to have follow-ups that were prepared. The follow-ups should have been more focused on the actual questions being asked by the audience and should have been limited in format to allow for the attention to be on the audience questions.

The American public would have been better served with the chance to hear about more topics and not the same rehashing of the same topics over and over again. Having the same topics addressed again and again denies the chance for voters to know about issues that would also inform voters, but rather focuses on the issues that Washington has decided should be the issues. The debates have spent little time focused on such issues as education, the innovation economy, science, Social Security, college debt, small business and the environment.

Sunday night’s debate could have been better and allowed for more topics. It could have also been more of a true town hall debate.