Beware of Ponytail Guy

How town-hall debates can go very wrong for a candidate.

Update, Oct. 7, 5:49 p.m.: Ponytail Guy responds!

In advance of Tuesday’s town-hall debate, both candidates have apparently decided to have a cleanse. Before facing questions from an audience of undecided voters who say they don’t like negative campaigning, Obama and McCain are engaging in an orgy of it.

Which candidate is hurt more by the negativity? If voters don’t penalize negativity, do they penalize hypocrisy? Will McCain’s tough but fair questions about Obama’s truth-telling and qualifications be overshadowed by the new surge of lower-road attacks on Obama’s character and associations? Normally, there’d be a delay (even insta-polls take a few minutes) before we knew what undecided voters make of all this. But Tuesday night’s debate may allow us to test their reactions to the race in real time—especially if the Ponytail Guy shows up. Or, since he probably won’t, maybe we should call him Son of Ponytail Guy.

“Ponytail Guy” is the term some in political circles use to refer to Denton Walthall, who asked a question in the second presidential debate in 1992. A domestic mediator who worked with children, Walthall  scolded President George H.W. Bush for running a mudslinging, character-based campaign against Bill Clinton in 1992. Referring to voters as “symbolically the children of the future president,” he asked how voters could expect the candidates “to meet our needs, the needs in housing and in crime and you name it, as opposed to the wants of your political spin doctors and your political parties. … Could we cross our hearts? It sounds silly here but could we make a commitment? You know, we’re not under oath at this point, but could you make a commitment to the citizens of the U.S. to meet our needs—and we have many—and not yours again?”

It did sound silly: a father-president dandling a nation of children voters on his knee. But instead of challenging the paterfamilias premise, the candidates took his pain seriously. Walthall didn’t scold Bush by name, but as the camera shot over his shoulder (showing us his ponytail), Bush could be seen growing annoyed. The question was addressed to all the candidates, but Bush was the candidate running the character-based campaign. He had answered a previous questioner by making the case for why Bill Clinton’s character should be an issue. So it was obvious Bush was the target of the Ponytail Guy’s criticism.

On Tuesday night, we’ll get to hear from some of this campaign’s swing voters—the rules of the debate guarantee their participation—as undecided voters pose questions to the candidates in the town-hall debate. 

It might be a snooze-fest, full of earnest questions and foggy bromides. But with the spike in negativity coming just ahead of the meeting, there is a chance that one of the two candidates will have to face a question about the harsh tone.

There’s been a lot of talk recently about Joe Six-Pack. How will he vote? What does he want? One thing we know: You don’t want Joe Six Pack calling you out. Questions from regular voters are hard enough for politicians to handle—they can’t be ignored as easily as journalists’ questions—but as the campaign turns ugly, the candidates have to worry about questioners passing judgment.

Son of Ponytail Guy will have a lot of material to work with. The McCain campaign started the latest round of negative ads, reacting to the candidate’s falling position in the polls by raising questions about Obama’s connections to William Ayers, a remorseless ‘60s radical. Sarah Palin joined in by trying to reignite the controversy over Obama’s former pastor the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and defining Obama as a fringe American. Obama responded by reminding voters of McCain’s involvement in the Keating Five scandal. By the end of the day, McCain had called Obama a liar.

In town-hall debates, the questions from the crowd can easily be turned into “moments” that journalists cling to for weeks. We’re always looking for vignettes that allow us to tell a larger story. A “moment” by a swing voter is particularly valuable. The questioner, after all, is representative of a worried nation (even if very few of us have ponytails). It’s not just the journalists who obsess, though. Voters see themselves in other voters—particularly those defined by television anchors as independent-minded—and tend to repeat these moments to their friends.

In 1992, the moment symbolized the disconnect between Bush and the electorate: He wanted to talk about character, while America was pleading for solutions. The president compounded his problem when he inartfully handled a woman’s inartful question about how the “national debt” had hurt him personally. (Bush was also caught looking at his wristwatch twice during the evening.) Clinton knew how to take advantage  of the moment. “I worked 12 years very hard as a governor on the real problems of real people. I’m just as sick as you are by having to wake up and figure out how to defend myself every day. I never thought I’d ever be involved in anything like this.”

And while there are risks for Obama, of the two candidates, John McCain has the most to be worried about from this year’s Ponytail Guy. Like Bush, he is a Republican candidate on the defensive about his ability to handle the problems regular folks face while also raising issues about his opponent’s character and judgment.

McCain has gotten more aggressive in recent days because the landscape is looking bleak for him. Obama has a strong lead in the national polls and surveys in early battleground states. Obama has a commanding lead in Iowa and New Mexico, states that Bush won. In Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Minnesota—states John Kerry won where McCain has the best chance—poll averages have Obama ahead by more than five points. McCain’s got to do something to change the dynamic.

Tuesday’s debate is one of the last chances McCain will have to make his case in front of a big audience. But his aides know that it might also be the toughest venue to make the anti-Obama case. Depending on how McCain responds, criticism can very easily be turned by his opponent into evidence that McCain lacks the temperament for the job. Obama is running an ad that labels McCain erratic, and Obama aides responded to McCain’s liar charge by calling it an “angry tirade.” The message is sinking in. In a focus group organized last week by pollster Peter Hart, the biggest concern voters of all persuasions had about McCain was about his temperament. McCain knows he has to be on his best behavior during the debate.

The 41st president’s run-in with Ponytail Guy left such a mark that it haunted his son throughout his campaigns. I remember watching a town hall during the 2000 campaign in which George W. Bush consistently refused to call on a man waving from the middle of the crowd like he was trying to flag a rescue plane. Bush pretended not to see him but let on afterwards that he’d seen him and avoided calling on him for fear of creating a moment. In 1996, when Bob Dole was given the chance to attack Clinton’s character in a town-hall debate, he demurred, saying the debate should be about the issues.

This year’s campaign shows how partisans on both sides go after the journalists who ask questions they don’t like. During the Democratic primaries, Chris Matthews, Tim Russert, and George Stephanopoulos were all savaged for the questions they asked and how they asked them. Last week, Gwen Ifill was attacked for a book she hasn’t written about a subject she isn’t addressing.

“Real” people (by which I mean people who don’t do this for a living) who are asking the questions may be harder to rough up. Or maybe not. On Tuesday night, if Son of Ponytail Guy asks a question, he can rest assured that he will receive a thorough going-over in the blogosphere. So I suggest all prospective questioners Google themselves, make sure they’re on good terms with their co-workers, and wipe clean their Facebook page. If they don’t—or even if they do—they could become the story very quickly.