Sound Off

How audience reaction distorts political debates

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?

Fein believes these moments have no less influence. “For the audience watching at home, these moments validate certain perspectives and can suggest to the audience that there is much more consensus about a particular point than there really is. Just because people are louder doesn’t mean it reflects popular opinion.” He points out these moments are the ones most likely to be played by the media and seen by people who didn’t watch the debate, which adds to the attention they receive.

Fein also speculates audience reaction has influence on the candidates themselves. “They’re going to play to these moments—it’s human nature to do that, and so it’s sort of a snowballing effect: candidates respond to the response and it just feeds off each other.”

Given this literature, CNN, in its “historic” co-sponsorship with Tea Party Express, stacked the deck for Monday’s debate. The audience was hardly representative of America or even the full Republican party, but activists from a novel political movement—incidentally, not even the whole movement—who were given an opportunity to respond in whichever way they chose.

As noted in several reports, CNN—a network that has previously innovated its political coverage with holograms and audience response meters—infused the debate with game-show theatrics, gimmicks which seemed to encourage the boo-hiss atmosphere that ensued.

The debate kicked off with an over-the-top intro, the sort one would expect to preview the final episode of The Bachelor or an NCAA championship, with an announcer’s voice-over and a montage of campaign video: “Eight Republicans; one goal”. The candidates—or “players” as Blitzer called them—were given labels, ‘The Fighter’; ‘The Big Thinker’; ‘The Firebrand’, and then called out on stage, one by one, in the fashion of a basketball starting line-up. A techno drumbeat played in the background; the crowd cheered and whistled. It would be hard to hold applause after that.

And so over the next 90 minutes, Blitzer moderated what seemed more rally than debate; marked not only by a burst of cheers for letting a man die, but more steadily, and even in some of his performance’s lower moments, applause and cheers for Rick Perry and tea party darlings Michelle Bachmann, Herman Cain, and Newt Gingrich. Romney, who much of the media proclaimed the sure winner, received relatively little support from the audience. (Though the audience reserved complete silence for John Huntsman’s jokes.)

As John Dickerson wrote for Slate:

If you were scoring this as an academic exercise, Romney would be the clear winner. But the audience of Tea Party activists in the hall for the debate co-sponsored by Tea Party Express and CNN weren’t grading on that scale. They appeared to like Perry much more than Romney.

By Fein’s findings, the audience’s support of Perry would likely have enhanced his performance in the minds of viewers. Yet media coverage of debates has also been found to play a significant role in shaping public opinion.

Whether people are more influenced by media coverage of the debates or the crowd reaction to them is complicated, says Fein, and likely depends on whether people watch the debate or simply tune in to the post-debate chat and spin.

Whatever the dynamics, Fein, says there is an easy way networks like CNN could and should prevent this sort of undue influence: use the moderator.

“I would certainly love to see them take the stance of just telling audience to keep it quiet. It shouldn’t be a sporting event, where you’re yelling and booing and cheering our side on. Because it is a distraction and can be more that, it can really influence things.”

Fein is particularly disdainful of CNN’s past use of “audience reaction meters” (the network used them in the 2008 general election when audiences were instructed to remain silent) in which the real-time reactions of a small, handpicked group were recorded on dials and broadcast over the course of the debate. “Their opinions are going to shape and at some level influence potentially millions of people out there,” he says.

He speculates that monitoring social media sites during a debate can have a similar effect on people, though it is likely to be somewhat muted, as people most often follow like-minded individuals.

He worries these technologies and the instant feedback found on Twitter and microblogs leave the public and perhaps more critically, the media, “no time for being thoughtful. There’s no opportunity for subtlety and nuance. It’s just quick reactions and very reactive kind of response.”

In this regard, Google and Fox, in introducing their brave new world of “realtime feedback” have stacked the deck for tomorrow. Will Google’s instant polling drive the pundits or will the substance of the debate? Will audiences lose sight of what’s actually being said between the Twitter feeds and reaction charting? What sort of sample is really going to be participating in Google’s real-time polling? Whatever the answers, it’s hard to imagine deeper understanding about candidates and their policies will result from this new distraction.

While acknowledging that media is a business and must engage in a contest to attract an audience, Fein thinks they can do better.

“What really concerns me is how much the media plays this as a sporting thing. It really sounds like a horse race or a baseball season. There’s this titillating quality to a lot of the coverage—all the bells and whistles and charts and 3-D things. It just cheapens the whole process and makes the emphasis on very superficial things. It becomes what reader and viewer comes to expect. With a little more substance it can make a bit of a difference, I think the audience is capable of more than more of what the media thinks they are.”

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Erika Fry is a former assistant editor at CJR.