One month ago, President Barack Obama took one of his more fashionable visits to New York. After an event at Waldorf-Astoria, Mr. Obama headed over to a second star-studded soirée hosted by Beyoncé Knowles and Jay-Z at the 40/40 Club in Midtown. There, a hundred guests who paid $40,000 for the privilege, lounged on sofas in a dark, glassy room to watch Mr. Obama pitch the importance of reelection. But Mr. Obama wasn’t there to ask for votes.
No, the president was in New York City, as is almost always the case when he visits, to fundraise among the city’s moneyed elite. And those individuals–the ones who sat at the 40/40 Club next to a tower of 350 bottles of $300-plus Jay-Z-endorsed Armand de Brignac champagne–represent the New Yorkers Mr. Obama cares about. His Republican adversary, Mitt Romney, is exactly the same.
But it’s not their fault that New York has been relegated to be the A.T.M. of the presidential race; nor is it anything new or special. Thanks to the winner-takes-all system by which the heavily Democratic state awards its presidential delegates, Mr. Obama is guaranteed to win the Empire State no matter how much time he or Mr. Romney campaign in Elmira or El Barrio.
Thus, average New Yorkers are effectively irrelevant to this electoral contest. However, tonight will be a potentially notable exception.
At Hofstra University, just about 25 miles outside of Midtown Manhattan in Hempstead, Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama will face off in the one and only town hall-style debate of 2012 where they will field questions from the audience as millions of Americans watch. The crowd of questioners at Hofstra will exclusively consist of local voters from suburban Nassau County, where the average resident’s per capita yearly income is only about $1,000 more than what those clubgoers at the 40/40 spent on their ticket for an evening with the president.
This rhetorical bout couldn’t come at a more pivotal time in the race, either. After Mr. Obama’s widely-panned performance in the first presidential debate, his once unshakable-looking lead tumbled back down to a more competitive reality and Mr. Romney’s campaign is enjoying new momentum and tighter poll numbers.
The importance of tonight’s debate is further amplified by the format. Instead of a veteran broadcast journalist, the candidates will find themselves speaking with voters; perhaps an unemployed worker who can’t seem to get a job, a mother whose daughter is sick but cannot afford her medical bills, and on down the list. For Mr. Romney in particular, this could provide a critical opportunity to cast aside his image as a corporate robber baron, or reinforce it if he’s unable to empathize. But, for Mr. Obama, often characterized as aloof, it’s an important chance as well.
Of course, all this can also depend on the quality of the questions. In the 2008 town hall debate between Mr. Obama and Senator John McCain, audience members asked fairly generic inquiries on broad topics. “How can we trust either of you with our money when both parties got–got us into this global economic crisis?” one questioner posited. Another asked, “Well, Senators, through this economic crisis, most of the people that I know have had a difficult time. And through this bailout package, I was wondering what it is that’s going to actually help those people out.”
The audience members tonight have the opportunity to push the presidential contenders on issues of particular significance in New York. Controversial environmental issues like the Indian Point nuclear power plant and hydraulic fracking are both impacted by federal laws, for example, and some like Mayor Michael Bloomberg have all but begged the two candidates to specifically discuss illegal gun policy. Jobs and the economy are sure to come up as well, which have particular significance in Long Island, where chronic unemployment has left many residents without jobs.
But even if the questions–which will be selected by CNN’s Candy Crowley–fall flat, the debate can still have a tangible impact on the race. Although Mr. McCain was not running an especially competitive race at the time of 2008’s town hall debate, his image further tumbled by his tendency to wander around the stage and he was criticized for referring to Mr. Obama as “that one.” The next Saturday Night Live skit showed Mr. McCain doing circles in front of the camera while having him call Mr. Obama “this character here” and “pee-pants over here.”
Tonight clearly has the potential to shake things up and it may be ordinary New Yorkers’ only chance to find themselves center stage in a presidential campaign. Grab some popcorn.