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Town Hall Format Brings Different Dynamics to Second 2016 Debate

The candidates will be free to roam the stage and selected voters will join moderators in asking the the questions for the second presidential debate.
Image: Students playing the roles of the candidates go through a rehearsal for the second 2016 U.S. presidential debate
Students playing the roles of the candidates go through a rehearsal for the second 2016 U.S. presidential debate in St. Louis, Missouri on Oct. 8, 2016.RICK WILKING / Reuters

Sunday night's presidential debate will have a much different look and feel than the last time Hillary Clinton and Donald trump squared off in front of a national audience -- and not just because of the chaos swirling around the GOP nominee's campaign after audio of his lewd comments about women were made public.

The second encounter, at Washington University in St. Louis, is a town hall-style debate where the candidates won’t be standing behind a podium but sitting on stool-like chairs, allowing the candidates to move around the stage.

The free movement of the candidates means that body language is even more important than ever. When President George H.W. Bush looked at his watch during his town hall event, it seemed as if he didn't have time for the inconvenience of a debate - not a good perception for a president who voters thought was out of touch. Then-Vice president Al Gore walked menacingly up to Texas Gov. George W. Bush in the 2000 town hall debate and Arizona Sen. John McCain seemed to be meandering on stage in 2008 while waiting his turn to speak -- moments that didn't help those candidates appeal to undecided voters.

Related: How to Watch the Second Presidential Debate

Maybe more importantly, the town hall format features questions from the audience members. Those participants have been selected through a screening process conducted by the Gallup organization, which is known for its polling, to ensure that they are undecided or softly leaning toward a candidate.

The first time this style of debate was used in modern politics was during the 1992 presidential election when the Commission on Presidential Debates agreed to include the format. Incumbent President George H.W. Bush, Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton and Ross Perot participated and it was well-received.

That 1992 town hall debate helped to solidify Clinton’s electoral success and cemented voters’ concerns that President Bush was disconnected from the middle class struggles.

A member of the audience asked the candidates how the national debt impacted them personally, Bush proceeded to speak about interest rates while Clinton answered the question with emotion, specificity and personality, which led voters to believe that he understood their struggle.

The recent news on both sides of the campaign -- Trump’s “hot mic” revelations and Clinton’s leaked paid speech transcripts -- provides even more unpredictability than usual for this debate.

Questioners could focus on the most recent spate of events, but as studies have shown, audience questions tend to be more broad and relevant to real life, not what’s the latest headline.

The moderators, Martha Raddatz of ABC News and Anderson Cooper of CNN, will ask approximately half of the question and can ask follow ups, but the focus will be on the audience members.

And for the first time during a presidential debate, questions will be taken from online submissions and social media, including Facebook.

Also, the Open Debate Coalition launched a crowd sharing questions website where people can propose questions and people vote on if they think the question should be asked.

Nearly 3 million people have either submitted questions or votes, according to the website, and the top question, with more than 73,000 votes, is if the candidate “would support requiring criminal background checks of all gun sales.”

The top 30 questions with the most votes will be considered as part of Sunday’s lineup.

For the audience members, it’s an opportunity to ask one of the people likely to be the next president a question that matters most. For the candidates, it’s talking to voters – in front of tens of millions of voters – and giving them insight into how they think.