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Get Rid of Live Audiences at Presidential Debates

Get Rid of Live Audiences at Presidential Debates

By Sean Braswell


Because television shows have laugh tracks for a reason.

By Sean Braswell

Cheers, boos, hooting, hollering. Much like the old joke about fights and hockey games, when it came to the Republican primary debates this year, many attendees found that they had gone to a political brawl and a debate broke out. “It was absurd,” analyst David Gregory told CNN Money after a WWE-worthy March debate in Detroit. “I thought the audience interfered with good questioning and [it] made me think, honestly, why do we need an audience at all?”

It’s a good question — and one, believe it or not, that’s just as apt for the far tamer general election debates as for their rowdier primary cousins. You see, while the upcoming presidential debates (beginning with the first one tomorrow), follow rules to help ensure civility and quiet, according to research, you don’t need a heckler to influence the impressions of viewers at home — just a seemingly innocent laugh will do. Which is one very good reason it’s time to end the era of live audiences at televised presidential debates — a spectacle to be sure, but also a very entertaining threat to deliberative democracy.

Although run by the nonprofit Commission on Presidential Debates, much about the debates remains negotiable among the candidates — just not the silence and decorum. Debate audiences are enjoined to be silent and not to applaud, an admonishment usually enforced by the moderator. “Trust me, you could hear a pin drop in that place for 90 minutes,” the man who has moderated more debates than anyone, Jim Lehrer, recently told The New Yorker.

But you can’t negotiate or browbeat the humanity out of an audience. You may remember the “you’re no Jack Kennedy” zinger that Lloyd Bentsen landed on Dan Quayle during the 1988 vice presidential debate. But do you remember the chorus of cheers and clapping it elicited from the audience? Or how about when Ronald Reagan, facing declining poll numbers and concerns about his age in 1984 against Walter Mondale, quipped that he was “not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience”?

Audience reactions during the upcoming Trump-Clinton debates may be more important and influential than ever.

The moment marked a key turning point for Reagan’s campaign and its impact was no accident, according to a major study from 2007 led by Williams College psychology professor Steven Fein. Researchers found that participants’ judgments about a candidate’s debate performance were strongly influenced by the audience’s reactions to one-liners — like the ones delivered by Bentsen and Reagan. “The audience reaction of strong approval did not recognize Reagan’s quip as a knockout punch,” the study’s authors wrote, “so much as it made it one.”

Candidates thus have a strong incentive to play to the audience, Fein tells OZY, because a strong audience reaction not only plays well live “but also makes the clip likely to get highlighted in the postdebate news and spin cycles, resulting in its impact growing exponentially.” Which is why, with the presence on the stage of someone like Donald Trump— who is simultaneously a seasoned entertainer better at scoring points than debating policy and a ripe target for crowd hostility — audience reactions during the upcoming Trump-Clinton debates may be more important and influential than ever. Could a single one-liner, a few dozen chuckling attendees and a subsequent media frenzy help sway the course of a close race?

The solution to the problem is really quite simple, says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center: Hold the debates in a studio, not an auditorium. That way there’s no need to worry about candidates pandering to live audiences with sound bites or about audiences filled with donors and partisans.

Let’s leave the one-liners to Twitter and the crowds to the rallies.

Still, there’s something to be said for the energy and adrenaline injected by a live audience, and a “strongly worded message to the audience before the debate goes on air,” says Fein, “can go a long way to reducing the problem.” Research also suggests that removing a live audience will hardly solve the influence of other factors, from a candidate’s appearance to a moderator’s reaction to the postdebate media commentary.

Trump recently proposed a moderator-free debate, but to Jamieson’s knowledge, no candidate has ever asked for the audience to be removed as well. If we are serious about serious debate and viewers’ ability to make up their minds, unfettered by noise and distraction, then these are exactly the types of proposals we should be taking seriously. Let’s leave the one-liners to Twitter and the crowds to the rallies, and let voters determine their own reaction to what the candidates say in the debates.

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