The second presidential debate was a town-hall forum, a difficult format that works best for the candidate who connects with the individuals asking the questions.
Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton fell short, for different reasons that show why their campaigns have struggled at times.
Trump seemed out of his element. The Republican nominee, whose preferred platform is a well-lit stage before an audience of thousands that he can entertain with jeers and jokes, paced around the stage restively while Clinton spoke.
When questioned, he failed to personally respond to his citizen interlocutors, not even getting the simple debate trick of thanking them by name, and instead got sucked into arguments with the moderators, Anderson Cooper and Martha Raddatz. Instead, he spoke to the audience as a whole, missing opportunities to connect with individuals.
Clinton appeared to have an easier time. She spoke directly to audience members, addressed them by their names and thanked them for asking their questions. “Thank you. Are you a teacher?” Clinton asked the first questioner, who had asked about schoolchildren watching the debate. “Because I’ve heard from lots of teachers and parents about some of their concerns.”
The town-hall format is closer to Clinton’s preferred platform, the roundtable discussion. During her campaign she has done well at moments where she’s connected with the mothers of African Americans killed by police, or answered a heartfelt audience question about her faith. But the town hall does not allow the same back-and-forth.
For both, the town hall was a reminder of why the two have a difficult time earning voters’ trust. Trump is seen as having little empathy for others, according to numerous public polls, and Clinton has struggled in public, unscripted moments. Neither has been comfortable inhabiting the folksy ease that the previous winning candidates, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama found in talking to voters.
Trump’s answers at times were startlingly tone-deaf. When a black audience member asked him whether he could be a “devoted president to all the people in the United States,” Trump went on a riff about the “inner cities.” When a woman identified herself as Muslim and asked about Islamophobia, Trump quickly pivoted to talking about the risk of Islamic terrorism and repeated an untrue claim about the San Bernardino bombing, saying that “many people saw the bombs all over the apartment.”
When Clinton responded to the black audience member’s question about being a “devoted president,” she put her hand over her heart and called the man by his name. “I have a deep devotion, to use your absolutely correct word,” Clinton said, “to making sure that an every American feels like he or she has a place in our country.”
To the Muslim who asked about Islamophobia, Clinton approached her and looked directly at her. “Thank you for asking your question, and I’ve heard this question from a lot of Muslim Americans across our country,” she said. “Because unfortunately, there’s been a lot of very divisive, dark things said about Muslims.”
Still, if there was any reminder that for the candidates, the performance was about the tens of millions of television viewers, it came in the first 25-minute stretch, as the two sparred bitterly over recent controversies while the citizen questioners waited. Finally, a moderator broke in.
“We want to give the audience a chance here,” said Martha Raddatz.