The History of the Town Hall Debate

Its origins go back to America’s earliest days, but its appearance on the national stage is relatively new

Richmond, Virginia, USA, 15th October, 1992, President George H.W. Bush at the Town Hall debates (Mark Reinstein)
smithsonian.com

Here’s one question you didn’t hear Barack Obama or Mitt Romney answer during the 2012 presidential election. “Do you prefer pepperoni or sausage on your pizza?”

The question was the brainchild of Pizza Hut, which promised free pizza for life to any patriot willing to ask the question at the audience-driven presidential town hall debate that year.

The marketing ploy, offered a week before the debate, quickly turned into a PR disaster as people panned the offer. A Gawker headline articulates the general reaction to the pitch: "Want Free Pizza Hut Pizza for Life? Just Make a Mockery of the American Democratic System on Live TV."

At first blush, the corporate stunt might seem entirely inappropriate for a tradition that dates all the way back to 17th-century New England meeting houses. But in a certain way it’s fitting: The modern town hall presidential debate, like its predecessor, was built on informal, populist discourse that invites everyone to the table, even those who perhaps shouldn’t be given the mic.  

The very first town hall in the United States was established in Dorchester, Massachusetts, in 1633. Per the town’s court records, every Monday at the sound of an 8 a.m. bell, townspeople held a meeting to settle and establish “such orders as may tend to the generall good as aforesayd.” The decisions made at these meetings were honored as law and “every man to be bound thereby, without gaynesaying or resistance.”

The practice soon spread throughout New England as an effective means for citizens to decide on important issues of the day. Town hall meetings gave locals a way to have their say in local affairs. The informal, majority-rules forum became a foundation of early American democracy and they are still used throughout the country today. The longest continuously functioning one, held in Pelham, Massachusetts, has been run out of a two-story wooden structure since 1743.

Early presidential hopefuls didn’t participate in town halls. They didn’t even openly campaign for votes. Rather, in the spirit of George Washington, elected officials were supposed to simply present themselves as civil servants. On-the-sly politicking and newspaper editorials were expected to do the campaign work for them—no debates needed.

Over time, this sentiment changed. When Abraham Lincoln made a run for Stephen Douglas’ senate seat, he persuaded the senator to agree to a series of debates in 1858—the first electoral debate of note in the country. Decades later, the advent of new technologies like radio and television offered even more ways for candidates to use the debate format to make an impression on would-be voters.

However, these debates were more stylistically formal and were moderated only by established journalists from established news outlets. But with each change came new risk and new reward—as with the famous first televised general election debate in 1960, in which John F. Kennedy’s camera-ready looks helped the Democratic senator score a win against Vice President Richard Nixon, a coup that eventually pushed him all the way to the Oval Office.

Since the 1920s, all presidential debates had been moderated by the League of Women Voters, but in the years after Nixon-Kennedy, campaigns have sought to exert more control, ideally to present their candidates in a more favorable light. From that emerged a secret, backdoor memo in the 1980s crafted by Republican and Democrats to give their candidates more leverage. Among their suggestions were to ban follow-up questions from moderators and an ability to seed the audience with supporters.

When the League caught wind that the parties were trying to strong-arm the debate format, it issued a searing statement from its president, Nancy M. Neuman.

"On the threshold of a new millennium, this country remains the brightest hope for all who cherish free speech and open debate," Neuman wrote. "Americans deserve to see and hear the men who would be president face each other in a debate on the hard and complex issues critical to our progress into the next century."

She challenged the candidates, Vice President George H.W. Bush and Governor Michael Dukakis, to "rise above your handlers and agree to join us in presenting the fair and full discussion the American public expects of a League of Women Voters debate."

The League ultimately withdrew its sponsorship. In its place, the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates was established. It proved more open to changes in the once-honored debate format.

That next presidential season, Arkansas governor Bill Clinton would put the new committee to the test. A skilled public speaker who prided himself on his ability to engage with crowds, Clinton had successfully used town hall forums, where he spoke one-on-one with voters, to his advantage in the primaries. Seeing a town hall debate as an easy way to shine in the general election, his campaign reached out to see if President Bush would be open to a change.

“Boy, I really wanted that, because I'd done a lot of town meetings,” Clinton later told PBSNewshour anchor Jim Lehrer.

The incumbent president initially seemed against the idea. As the president told Bernard Shaw on CNN, "I thought when you and others asked tough questions at the 1988 debates, it livened things up. I saw nothing wrong with the former format.”

But his campaign agreed to it during a phone call with Clinton. As Northeastern University journalism professor Alan Schroeder points out in his book on the perils of the presidential campaign trail, the Bush team believed that since the debate was being held in conservative Richmond, Virginia, undecided voters would be impressed enough by a chance to speak to the president that they wouldn’t ask him hard questions. Bush himself had fared well in small groups in the past, even hosting a successful “Ask George Bush” forum during his own campaign, which was analogous to Clinton’s own forums. The new Commission on Presidential Debates put the forum in motion and the town hall format for presidential debates was born.

Despite the country’s historic embrace of  town halls, allowing everyday voters to question the candidates on a national stage revamped the original model and gave it a turn-of-the-21th-century twist. PARADE magazine called it “one more populist touch in a campaign marked by bus tours, talk shows and MTV—and capped by huge voter turnout.”

The new format meant that candidates couldn’t easily stick to their talking points and instead had to react to questions culled from the crowd. It also created a way for the public to see how candidates performed in a more informal environment. Clinton, for one, was ready: His practiced Southern charm played to his advantage, helping him regain an edge from independent candidate H. Ross Perot, who was considered the winner of the first, more formal, debate.

“Since the town hall format was a novelty it received far more attention than the other more conventional debates,” wrote University of Maryland professor Kathleen E. Kendall in her book on presidential candidates and the media. “Clinton was able to generate substantial political capital because he could showcase his relational style in the most highly publicized and popular of the debates.”

That October, 209 undecided voters were selected by the Gallup Organization to serve as the studio audience for the 90-minute debate. Carole Simpson of ABC News served as moderator. When she came on stage, she commented first on the novelty of the night: “Tonight's program is unlike any other presidential debate in history—we're making history now and it's pretty exciting.”

Though Bush got some barbs in, like saying the Arkansas governor’s flip-flopping would turn the “White House into the Waffle House,” he was criticized for looking too formal, staying behind his lectern for the debate, and looking at his watch. Visuals meant everything, as Clinton knew.

As one paper published in the Journal of Communication in 2007 argues, “While the Bush team simply practiced verbal arguments and rebuttals leading up to the town hall debate, Bill Clinton’s staff also laid out a grid, complete with fake cameras and doubles for his opponents and the audience, to train their candidate to utilize space effectively.”

That meant whenever the camera was on him, Clinton was ready and posed accordingly. The future president also knew how to keep Bush and Perot in the camera’s view so that they might be caught with “bad facial expressions."

Bush would later express his frustration with how the town hall had gone to Lehrer: “You look at your watch and they say that he shouldn't had any business running for president. He's bored. He's out of this thing, he's not with it and we need change. It took a little incident like that to show that I was you know out of it. They made a huge thing out of that. Now, was I glad when the damn thing was over. Yeah. And maybe that's why I was looking at it, only 10 more minutes of this crap, I mean."

But Bush took arguably more heat for being unable to field a question from one of the voters in the audience. When Marisa Hall Summers asked how the candidates had been personally affected by America's economic downturn, Bush was perceived as being out of touch, saying, “it has a lot to do with interest rates.”

According to a Times Mirror Center poll conducted at the end of October 1992, the debate was a success. Forty-six percent of the public preferred that candidates be questioned by voters compared to 28 percent who preferred to stick with a single-moderator format. Simpson chalked up the town hall’s success to its popular appeal. “I think voters who are used to the overabundance of talk shows want to see those people reacting with others like them,” she said. “I think they want that connectedness.”

Since 1992, the town hall format has continued to evolve. In 2008, it included several questions submitted online for the first time. The “pepperoni or cheese” question was actually introduced there first, but because it wasn't asked, Pizza Hut ended up making its bold promise the following election cycle.  

This Sunday, for the first time ever, a town hall debate will be considering the top 30 questions submitted and selected by viewers at PresidentialOpenQuestions.com. Currently leading with more than 42,000 votes is a question asked by Richard M. from California: “Would you support requiring criminal background checks for all gun sales?

The town hall debate is now seen as part of the American political tradition. And in a way, it is—a modern innovation cribbed from a much older way to include everyday people in the political process.

“It’s the democratic process in its most amiable state: earnest Americans asking serious questions about the issues,” a New York Times opinion piece wrote in 2004.

Perhaps the questions aren’t always so earnest. But they likely weren’t back in 1633 either—unless colonists needed to decide which kind of pizza to order. 

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