“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.”