Matt Yglesias asks: "What's the point of these health care town halls?" and says that "it doesn’t seem like a mode of endeavor likely to increase the popularity of the politician holding the town hall."
As I said yesterday, the purpose of Congressional town halls is advertising for the Member of Congress. I didn't elaborate much, so I'll do that now...For an hour or so, a Member gets to show off her expertise and responsiveness. They're good at that sort of thing; they know how to act sympathetic to those who oppose them, and make those who support them feel like they have a friend in Washington. And it's a good format: It's a lot more efficient than meeting with constituents one-on-one, and it doesn't run the risk of annoying people that's entailed in showing up in a coffee shop or park or whatever. I wouldn't say that the fact they do them proves that it works, but they are good at getting reelected.
I noticed that some of the comments responding to Yglesias stress the free media advantages of the town hall format, which are certainly true (as seen in the event that put him to thinking). But I think that at least for Members of the House those effects are secondary. If a Member holds ten town halls every two years, and manages to get an average of a hundred different people to show up, that's 1000 unusually engaged voters, most of whom are likely to walk away more impressed than when they walked in. If each of them passes that assessment on to ten (different) people, that's a fairly significant total number, given that House electorates aren't all that big in the first place (think 100-250K votes cast in an off year such as 2006).
Gary Jacobson shows that name recognition is good, name recall is better, but what really clinches the deal is when a voter can think of something good about a Member of Congress. Town Halls are a low-cost, low-risk (certainly in normal times, and I think even now) method of achieving that.
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