Tuesday, the McCain campaign announced that it would return to holding town hall meetings in response to criticism that the Arizona senator appeared stiff during a series of scripted speeches. Yesterday morning, I attended the latest of these town hall meetings at Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center, in which McCain opened with a 10-minute speech and then took questions from the audience for the next hour. Some thoughts:
1. Without a question, the town hall format plays to the McCain’s strengths. McCain interacts well with voters one-on-one, and his ability to respond succinctly to questions on a broad range of issues gives the impression that he possesses a detailed grasp of policy. It also gives the impression of sincerity.
2. The town hall format allows McCain to speak of his heroic military service frequently. For example, during today’s event, multiple questioners prefaced their remarks by thanking McCain for his service, thereby giving McCain the opportunity to discuss his naval experiences and recognize the veterans in attendance. Since voters-rather than the candidate-are raising the issue, the town hall format affords McCain the opportunity to reference his service without it seeming politicized. (Contrast this to Rudy Giuliani’s frequent mentions of his own leadership post-9/11, which ultimately wearied voters and invited attacks from opponents.)
3. The town hall format allows McCain to convincingly confront the issues on which he is vulnerable-particularly among conservatives still skeptical of him. For example, when asked why he opposes drilling for oil in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge, McCain said, "I wouldn’t drill in the Grand Canyon, I wouldn’t drill in the Everglades." He then declared his support for offering federal funding to states undertaking oil and natural gas exploration off their coasts, such as Florida and California. This response seemed to satisfy the crowd, which-by the imperfect metric of applause-seemed split 50-50 on the question of ANWR drilling when it was first raised.
4. The town hall format obscures a major difference between McCain and his opponent: whereas Barack Obama’s speeches have drawn people by the thousands, McCain tends to draw a more modestly-sized audience. For example, today’s gathering in Philadelphia was approximately 800-strong-not a bad showing, but still nothing like Obama’s standing-room-only events. Yet precisely because McCain’s events are designed such that the candidate is interacting with the audience, smaller turnouts actually help McCain in his bid to appear more intimate with voters.
5. Obama has repeatedly declined McCain’s call for joint town hall meetings and, having watched McCain today, I can see why. The intimacy that McCain is able to establish with voters through this format would conflict with Obama’s modus operandi, which is to establish himself as the icon of a mass movement.