Last night's town hall style debate was supposed to have been the forum in which John McCain would shine. Let's face it, he's held hundreds of them. I believe the Senator presided over 100 town hall gatherings in New Hampshire alone during the primary season. And it was his performance during those personal exchanges with New Hampshire voters that got him back into the race during primary season.
So why did post debate polls favor Obama? I believe in many respects it's less about what Obama said and more about how McCain listened. McCain's reference to Obama as "that one" only served to punctuate McCain's obvious disdain for his opponent - disdain made evident every time Obama addressed the audience.
You see, the difference between a town hall debate and a town hall meeting is that you have to share the stage with your adversary. How you well listen is just as important as how well you speak. And while it's important in any debate format, it's crucial in the more free-wheeling town hall setting. Over the course of 90 minutes, McCain was often disengaged when Obama spoke, sometimes walking aimlessly around the stage until it was his turn to speak again. There was a restlessness about him as he listened - a stark contrast to words about experience and being the steady hand during tough times. McCain was confident when he spoke but less likeable when he wasn't speaking, and it cost him with viewers last night.
To illustrate the point, I was driving home and had to listen to the debate on NPR. I thought McCain did pretty well in the scheme of things. It wasn't until I got home and watched a re-run on CNN that I realized why viewers sided so overwhelmingly with Obama in post-debate polls. I couldn't watch McCain listen on the radio. Seeing the exchange on TV completely changed my point of view.
It's a great lesson for all of us. While we may never have cause to participate in a nationally televised debate, it's important to understand that regardless of how well spoken one may be, people place a premium on listening. As well they should.