Questioning the Questions: An Examination of the "Unpredictable 2004 Bush-Kerry Town Hall Debate

Article excerpt

When the first town hall debate took place in the general election campaign of 1992, the presidential debate landscape changed permanently. From 1976 through 1988, every televised debate occurring during a general election campaign followed the model of the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates: a panel of journalists punctuated the proceedings by asking questions of the candidates. After 1992, press panel debates disappeared from the lineup, replaced by a single moderator approach. The town hall debate, however, gained momentum and has been one of the formats used in each debate series during the past four general election campaigns. As Schroeder observed, "the viewer appeal of this format seems to have guaranteed its future" (145).

Since the beginning of town hall debates, the potential volatility of the format has both concerned debate producers (Schroeder 147) and attracted viewers. The former are concerned about the unpredictability of the behaviors of untrained voters, who suddenly find themselves thrust into the presidential debate limelight and may behave in unanticipated ways. Because the town hall format maximizes spontaneity (Farah 88), it potentially is more interesting than formats in which, critics have charged, the proceedings seem entirely too scripted. The potential for unanticipated, "unscripted" moments defines a unique attribute of the town hall for mat, a possibility that undoubtedly strikes fear into the hearts of candidates and their strategists while it tempts viewers.

This essay considers the unpredictability of town hall debates in a new way. Analysis of the 2004 town hall debate. (1) between George W. Bush and John F. Kerry reveals that, as the town hall format has matured, some of what we thought we knew about it may no longer be true. As one observer noted, "The encounter at Washington University here also shattered some conventional wisdom about town hall debates" (Harris A21). Much of this conventional wisdom is an outgrowth of expectations shaped by the very first national town hall debate in 1992, and close examination of the 2004 debate reveals that the 1992 template is no longer operational.

The unpredictability of the 2004 town hall will be examined by comparing the questions asked by voters with those asked in previous town hall debates and those asked by journalists in press panel debates. While the press panel and town hall formats differ in many ways, they share one inescapable feature. In both, the various "rounds" of debate are initiated by questions. One candidate takes first crack at answering a question, and then rivals are invited to reply, in remarks sometimes even referred to as "rebuttals." Whether the basic design of the debate is Meet the Press or meet the people, its communication dynamics are shaped by the question/answer nature of the encounter.

Close study of the questions featured in the different formats reveals how the 2004 town hall debate upset emergent expectations regarding discourse and interaction in this format.

The next section outlines three expectations that have emerged regarding town hall debates. The subsequent section will analyze the 2004 Bush-Kerry debate, demonstrating how these expectations went unrealized. The final section argues that the dynamics present in the 2004 debate may shape the way that future town hall debates are staged.

TOWN HALL DEBATE EXPECTATIONS

The town hall format arrived with high expectations and was met with early endorsements. "A Times Mirror Center poll conducted at the end of October 1992 revealed that 460/0 of the public preferred that candidates be questioned by voters, compared to 28% who endorsed the single moderator format with no other questioners and 14% who favored a panel of reporters" (Owen 151). CBS News anchor Dan Rather commented that the Richmond, Virginia, town hall debate in 1992 "worked best because the questions were by far the best" (quoted in Berke, "Which Debate" A19). …