Ah, another week, another gimmick-ridden Republican debate. Tomorrow’s, in Orlando, is billed as the Fox News/Google debate and is held in conjunction with the Republican Party of Florida.
In preparation, the sponsors have been fielding (and rating the likability of) questions on YouTube—creativity encouraged!—that will be among those posed at the debate. Google politics man and “tech wizard” Steve Grove will also be on hand in Orlando to analyze and report the results of online polling efforts in real time. That means at-home viewers will be privy to the reactions of many people, rather than just the relative few that make up the debate’s live audience.
These conditions may seem like a geeky, democratic improvement over last week’s CNN Tea Party debate, a boisterous 90-minute affair in Tampa in which eight candidates went at it in an arena of 1,000 Tea Party activists. But in fact, there’s reason to believe the Google Fox News debate will be no improvement at all, but just one more step towards ceding reflection on the debate to the instant reaction of crowds.
Like coverage of most political debates, the post-debate wrap from the Tea Party Express event was typical—full of fighting imagery and centered on sound bites. Most reports mentioned Romney’s “If you’re dealt four aces, that doesn’t make you necessarily a great poker player” and Perry’s “If you’re saying that I can be bought for $5,000, I’m offended.”
Yet, one of the night’s most publicized moments was different in that it focused not on the candidates, but on the crowd.
That moment came when Wolf Blitzer pressed Ron Paul about providing medical care to a hypothetical 30-year old man who had chosen not to purchase insurance and suddenly falls victim to “something terrible.”
BLITZER: But Congressman, are you saying that society should just let him die?
Before Paul could answer, members of the audience cheered, at least one loud man yelled, “Yeah!”
Paul actually answered no, recalling his experiences as a doctor in the pre-Medicaid days of the 1960s, when churches would pitch in, but by that point, Paul had lost the stage to the unruly. The tea partiers’—likely just a small group of the 1,000 in the hall—zeal for death was instantly tweeted and then blogged and then reported and editorialized about. A similar phenomenon happened just days earlier at the NBC News/Politico debate in which the audience at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library gave one of its biggest cheers of the night to mention of Texas’s 254 executions.
To be sure, these moments were unusual—and not just because, as even Rick Perry has pointed out the typically “pro-life” party was playing “pro-death.” In these past two events, the audiences have taken an outsize role, cheering and jeering—oftentimes at surprising moments that don’t seem to match the dynamics on stage.
In contrast with the recent Republican debates, debates during the general election (critically, these are hosted by the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, not a media outlet competing for ratings) have taken place before live audiences that are given strict orders to remain silent. This is a measure implemented to save time, but also to maintain the event’s seriousness and prevent undue influence of viewers.
This last point is demonstrated by psychology scholars Steven Fein, George R. Goethals, and Matthew B. Kugler in their paper “Social Influence on Political Judgments: The Case of Presidential Debates,” published in Political Psychology in 2007. Their study found that crowd reaction influences perception of a candidate’s debate performance and general character.
Through a series of four experiments, the social scientists showed that when an audience cheers, applauds, or reacts favorably to a candidate, viewers are far more likely to hold a positive view of that candidate than had they watched the performance without an audience reaction.
Moments in which an audience reacts are also more memorable and more likely to be reported by the media; these moments, in turn, often become defining sound bites in a campaign season and provide a candidate momentum in the horse race. Ronald Reagan’s “There you go again,” (directed at Jimmy Carter) and Lloyd Bentsen’s “You’re no Jack Kennedy” (to Dan Quayle) are classic examples of these sorts of utterances.
“The role of the audience is something that media underplays, but it’s real,” says Fein.
So, what to make of moments like last Monday’s when members of the audience are cheering not for witty lines, but for ideas, like the hypothetical man’s death?