Whitman's “Town Hall”: Fraud or Crafty Messaging?

One candidate "exposes" a rival's "fraud"... while the other says it is simply a great way to get out their message.

The fraud, according to GOP Gubernatorial candidate Steve Poizner is his opponent's “staged” town hall meeting that is now being shown as an infomercial on television stations around the state (KNBC aired it this past Sunday). The event took place last month in Orange County. According to Mike Murphy, Whitman’s chief campaign consultant, there was an event that day in which the campaign sent out invitations to activist Republicans who might want to hear from the candidate. At the end of that event there was an announcement made that next door the campaign planned on making a commercial. The setting would be a “town hall” format with Meg answering questions. Those who wanted to take part were then taken to the set which was right next door.

Murphy says a little more than half the audience had met the candidate before but others hadn’t. They taped for about an hour of which 30 minutes actually aired.

The looks of the event seemed a little like those newspaper ads that are presented in the typeface and framing to appear as if they are part of the newspaper itself. The town hall had a moderator (former KNBC anchor Rick Chambers) who opened the program telling the crowd “they were fortunate to have with us one of the candidates for Governor”. He welcomed Whitman and told here that there were a lot of “tough” questions waiting for her.

The Poizner campaign, in their counter-commercial, pointed out how Whitman picked on audience members whom she already knew and who were already part of her campaign. They even had a mole inside the first event and rolled a flip camera video of Whitman telling the audience that they would be “integral” to the commercial and that lots of applause or cheering would be good.

Murphy says the questions weren’t scripted. “These were real people with real questions” he told me. They used for their infomercial  the best questions and obviously the best answers.

So was this a fraud?

The infomercial was identified at the outset as a campaign commercial. Chambers (the paid moderator) on several occasions gave out Whitman’s campaign web address and pitched her policy handbook. It seemed obvious to me that this was a political spot.

And some, such as USC Political Scientist Sherry Bebitch Jeffe  saw nothing wrong with it as long as it was clearly identified for what it was. Jeffe points out that this kind of spot dates back  to Eisenhower. Candidates have frequently used “real people” to ask them what were  essentially set up questions.  Some can be found here: Nixon, Kennedy and others did ths same.


And while so many dislike the  superficiality of the 30 second campaign TV commercial what is wrong with one that allows for lengthy responses to issue questions… even if those questions are designed simply to get  the candidate’s message out?

It appears the Whitman  crafted “town halls” are part of the evolution of campaign messaging… sham-wow style.

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