Trump’s new debate challenge: Silence

On Saturday, Feb. 13, the Republican debate audience in South Carolina booed loudly as Donald Trump ridiculed former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and blamed his rival’s brother, former President George W. Bush, for 9/11. Trump interpreted the live jeering for the TV audience: “That’s Jeb’s special interests and lobbyists talking.” 

Aaron Kall, debate coach at the University of Michigan, thinks Trump played those raucous debate crowds during the presidential primaries like a master performer.  

{mosads}Trump won’t have much to work with, however, on Monday night at Hofstra University in New York. No matter how good the zingers are that the Republican presidential nominee hurls at Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, the live audience will remain hushed. 

“Unlike the primary debates, we specifically instruct the audience at the general election debates to remember that they are there as ‘witnesses to history’ and are not to applaud cheer or demonstrate,’ ” Mike McCurry, co-chair of the nonpartisan organization running the presidential debates, said in an email. 

“We will remind the audience that they will be politely escorted out if they infract.” 

Live audiences made their feelings known during the Democratic and Republican primaries, but higher standards of decorum apply to general election debates. 

Given the stakes of Monday night — the TV audience is expected to approach 100 million — the debate organizers won’t tolerate any crowd noise that might unduly influence the perceptions of voters watching at home. 

Ticket holders to Monday’s debate will receive instructions about how to behave and what to wear, said McCurry. The Secret Service will screen them and security will confiscate signs and posters. No “overt political costumes” will be tolerated. 

Choosing the debate audience causes additional heartburn.  

About a third of the tickets go to the campaigns. They’re distributed in equal proportions, and the campaigns “always want more,” McCurry said. Another third go to the host school or university, which bears most of the cost of debate preparations. For Monday’s debate, Hofstra has created a lottery for current students, with the caveat that participants must be registered to vote. 

The final third go to the Commission on Presidential Debates, to be distributed among members of the organizing group, sponsors and local VIPs. 

Janet Brown, executive director of the debate commission, said she won’t know the size of the audience until debate day — after the set is finished, camera platforms installed, and law enforcement and the fire marshal sign off. 

Exact audience sizes for debates are rarely published, but after the South Carolina GOP primary debate, in which Trump accused Bush of stacking the audience with his donors, the Republican National Committee published a memo breaking down the allocation of tickets. About 1,600 tickets were distributed.  

Tickets for this year’s general election debates are hotter commodities than ever, McCurry said. 

“So much so that I have to tell all my long-lost friends that I can’t help them,” he said. “Unprecedented interest and demand.” 

McCurry knows he and his co-chair, Frank Fahrenkopf, have their work cut out for them to keep the live audience behaved. 

“It has been remarkable how free these debates have been of disruption,” he said. “But this is obviously a remarkably different kind of campaign. 

“We’ll do our best.” 

David Birdsell, a presidential debate historian and dean of the Baruch College School of Public Affairs in New York, said audience participation has always been banned in general elections going back to 1976, the first time a live audience sat in on a presidential debate. He can’t recall a debate in which the audience has broken the rules in a meaningful way. 

The only opportunities for audience engagement in the general election are the town halls, which came into being in the 1992 cycle, he said. 

Birdsell recalled two moments in these town hall debates that significantly shaped how candidates were framed. 

In a 1992 town hall debate, Bill Clinton manufactured a made-for-TV moment when he got out of his chair, walked to the edge of the audience, and empathized with a young woman who was worried about debt. He made his rival, incumbent President George H.W. Bush, who had fumbled the same question seconds earlier, appear aloof and uncaring. 

In his 2008 town hall debate against then-Sen. Barack Obama, Republican nominee John McCain was mocked for wandering aimlessly around the stage and “looking lost,” Birdsell said. The gossip website Gawker labeled its montage of McCain the “McCain Wanders Around Aimlessly Montage!”  

The sole opportunity for an audience to interact with Clinton and Trump this year will be at their town hall debate in St. Louis, Mo., on Oct. 9. It will be the only debate with two moderators, CNN’s Anderson Cooper and ABC’s Martha Raddatz. 

Gallup, the public polling organization, will select the town hall audience, ensuring it comprises only uncommitted voters. These voters will pose half of their questions to Clinton and Trump, and the other half will be posed by the moderators “based on topics of broad public interest as reflected by social media and other sources,” according to the Commission on Presidential Debates. 

Trump, a candidate uniquely skilled at exploiting the energies of live audiences, will likely enjoy the interactions in that town hall. 

For Monday, however, Trump must prepare to deal with an element he has never experienced in his live performances: silence. 

“Trump really fed off the energy of the crowd [in the primary debates],” Kall said. “Whether positively or negatively, he was able to use it to his advantage. 

“One thing to watch in the general election debates is … it may be difficult for him, because he’s not a professional politician and he feeds off the audience. 

“And if that is not there for him, he may not be as effective as a debater.”

Tags Barack Obama Bill Clinton Donald Trump Hillary Clinton John McCain

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