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Posted 01.27.06
 
 
   

'Town Hall' Debates Dodge Issues of Importance to Voters

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- While he was a candidate for president in 1992, Bill Clinton successfully negotiated the first town hall debates, which incorporated citizen participation into the candidates' debate dialogue. To many, the advent of the town hall format was regarded as a rejuvenation of public involvement in presidential campaigns. The success of the format in 1992 led the Commission on Presidential Debates to use the format in the 1996, 2000 and 2004 presidential debates. Now, a researcher at the University of Missouri-Columbia is examining how well the town hall debates actually reflect the public's concerns and issues.

Mitchell McKinney."Close scrutiny of the 'evolution' of town hall debates suggests that our presidential candidates have maneuvered to gain nearly complete control over the town hall exchange since the debate was first introduced," said Mitchell McKinney, assistant professor of communication at MU. "A 'devolution' of the town hall debate as a public sphere has occurred, whereby every four years citizens' freedoms to participate in their debate--as they see fit--have been seriously restricted."

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McKinney compared the issues discussed in the 1992 town hall debate between Clinton, President George Bush and H. Ross Perot to the 2004 town hall debate between Sen. John Kerry and President George W. Bush. In 1992, 61 percent of the town hall debate focused on the public's top five issues of concern-health care, budget deficit, education, crime and the environment-as determined by Gallup polls taken before the debate. The public's top three issues also were the top three issues discussed in the debate. During the debate, citizens were allowed to stand, ask their questions directly to the candidates and pose follow-up questions.

However, more restrictions were placed on citizens and their questions in subsequent debates. In 2004's town hall debate, citizens did not directly question candidates and had abided by a strict code of conduct agreed upon by representatives of the Bush and Kerry campaigns. Prior to the debate, audience members submitted their questions to Charles Gibson, the debate's moderator, and Gibson selected the questions that would be posed to the candidates. Fifty-two percent of the debate focused on the public's top five issues of concern--the economy/jobs, Iraq, health care, terrorism/homeland security and foreign policy. The economy, the issue the public deemed most important, was among the least discussed during the debate, coming in tenth out of 16 issues.

"Once the political candidates and their handlers realized the dangers of allowing citizens to actually participate freely in their debate, we end up, in 2005, with a debate dialogue that has very little relationship to the public's agenda," McKinney said.

The study recently was published in American Behavioral Scientist.

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