Editor’s Note: Todd Graham is the director of debate at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. He has coached his teams to national championships and has been honored with the Ross K. Smith National Debate Coach of the Year award. Graham has analyzed presidential debates for five elections.
Todd Graham: GOP presidential debate audiences have gotten more and more raucous
He says this matters because the boos and cheers can sway viewers' opinions
Boos came for Mitt Romney's father being born in Mexico and for the golden rule
Graham: If this keeps up we risk letting the loud few influence the silent many watching at home
Lately it’s hard to tell the difference between a presidential debate and “The Jerry Springer Show.” Yeah, I know. Some of you have been saying this for months. But my comment isn’t a criticism of the candidates, but the live audience. I was hoping this audience “whoop” factor would go away over the long debate season, but it has only grown worse.
Are they serving alcohol at the debates? It seems like it. In last night’s Republican presidential debate, held in the Myrtle Beach Convention Center in South Carolina, the chaotic audience once again played an awkward role in the questions and answers.
Why does this matter? On these presidential debates, the vocal live audiences have shown themselves to be more disruptive than productive. And I’ve seen debate judges (people who should know better) in intercollegiate tournaments have their decisions influenced by a noisy audience — even judges trained to be impartial and objective.
In this case, the judges are you, the audience. I know everyone believes they can’t be swayed like this, but it still happens (even to me, which is one of the reasons I watch the presidential debates alone. I don’t want anyone influencing my analysis). There is even a name for it in the literature. Emotional contagion.
And it was apparent Monday night – fanboys (and fangirls) who were every bit as rabid as a football crowd. The only people missing were face-paint girl and shirtless guy. (Of course, it’s hard to tell on television how much of the crowd participated in the cheering and booing.)
It was especially annoying because the live audience was booing their disapproval at inappropriate times. Two examples. Juan Williams, one of the moderators, was asking Mitt Romney about his immigration policies when he was interrupted in mid-question. Williams had begun the question by stating that Mitt Romney’s father was born in Mexico. “Boo!” came the shouts from the audience. What? What in the world were they booing? I still have no idea. It could have been Juan Williams, the question, Romney’s father, or Romney’s position on immigration. It made no sense.
Then the live audience ganged up on Ron Paul. Remember, Paul has some of the more unconventional foreign policy positions for a conservative Republican audience. And Paul was not at his best last night (I’ve heard him defend his argument much more effectively) when explaining his position on the military operation that killed Osama bin Laden.
But the audience mistimed its reaction and used most of its vitriol immediately after Paul said the American people wouldn’t like it if the United States were treated the same way it treated other countries. Paul reiterated his stance that we should use the golden rule – do unto others as you would have them do unto you – when the boos rang out. I couldn’t believe it. I was indeed hearing this correctly. The crazed audience at the presidential debate actually booed the golden-freaking-rule. What’s next? Helping old women cross the street? “Boo! … Villain!” Puppies? “Hiss … Shame!”
And the audience was equally annoying when applauding. Remember: Cheering should prove nothing to you in a debate except that some candidates are better than others at stacking the live audience with supporters. I’m also beginning to wonder if there is an “applause” sign that lights up so some of the slower audience operatives will remember when to react.
For their part, the candidates handled the live audience pretty well. After all, politicians are used to verbal feedback in public speeches and town hall meetings.
My advice today is for the general viewing public at home. Simply keep in mind that the opinions of the live audience are not necessarily reflective of anything, including logic. And try to resist being influenced by overzealous fools watching the debate from the cheap seats. If this continues, we’re in danger of letting the loud few influence the silent many watching at home. I certainly hope we can reverse this trend. Because I’d hate to see the next step: Measuring presidential debates by audience noise-meters with a needle that moves up and down. After all, higher decibel levels must indicate better policies.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Todd Graham.