Introduction

The first presidential debate of 2016 did not disappoint. From rapid-fire exchanges to venomous barbs to serious differences in policy positions, there is much to unpack. In this feature, HPR writers examine the aspects of the debate that surprised them, things that didn't get enough coverage, and the broader implications of the debate for America's political discourse.

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HPRgument Posts | September 28, 2016 at 11:50 pm

Get Rid of the Debate Audience

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If you were one of the 84 million people who tuned into Monday’s debate, you could be excused for thinking you were watching hooligans at a soccer match.

I am not talking about the candidates. Rather, I am referring to the audience.

Unlike the politically charged audience at primary debates, the audience’s role at a general election debate is to passively observe, refraining from jeers or cheers. After all, the debate’s organizer, the Commission on Presidential Debates, is a non-partisan organization.

As Frank J. Fahrenkopf, the co-chairman of the Commission, admonished the audience before the debate, “There’s no clapping, there’s no cheering, there’s no booing, there’s no sound.” The focus should be on the two candidates, he argued. Yet last night, the audience—packed with party heavyweights and donors—ignored this protocol and became a distracting element thanks to their brazen support of the candidates.

At times, the audience applauded the candidates. At other times, the audience laughed at Trump. Lester Holt, the debate’s moderator, pleaded with them to no avail to be quiet and respectful.

A plausible solution to this problem is to simply have no audience. After all, if the audience is supposed to sit there like statues, why bother having one at all?

Even days before the debate, there were concerns about the debate hall audience. Mark Cuban, of Shark Tank and Forbes List fame, scored a ticket to what he called the “Humbling at Hofstra”. Hillary Clinton’s press secretary Brian Fallon said of Cuban, “If you have ever seen @mcuban courtside at a Mavs game, you know he’ll be fired up for Monday’s debate. #ImwithHer”. Trump, not one to be taunted, fought back by threatening to invite Gennifer Flowers, who had an extramarital affair with Bill Clinton.

These debates are not meant to be pay-per-view boxing fights on HBO. Rather, debates are meant to educate society about the politician’s stances on issues in order to discern who is best prepared to lead our nation.

Fifty-six years ago, the first ever general election debate, which was televised, fulfilled that mission quite well. John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon faced off in an empty television studio with a moderator and four panelists.

This format allowed the American public to zero in on the content of the candidates’ discourse without an external force influencing their opinions. The candidates—one more effectively than the other—played to the camera, and, thus, the audience watching at home.

Last night, playing to the hall, Clinton and Trump exchanged insults and campaign rhetoric. It seemed that, when planning the debate, the Commission forgot our future president serves the American people, not an elite group of ticket holders.

Today, there is more than enough noise before, during, and after the debate. With unceasing coverage on networks like CNN and instant commentary on Twitter, Americans have access to faster and more reactions than ever before. While an audience in an age before instant feedback might have been worthwhile, today’s debate hall audience provides an inessential layer.

The Commission states that they strive to “ensure that debates, as a permanent part of every general election, provide the best possible information to viewers and listeners.” The audience proved that they are counterproductive to this mission. They inhibited the candidates from providing the “best possible information,” and, frankly, served no valuable function.

When considering whether or not to include an audience in future debates, perhaps the commission should follow Trump’s recurrent roar at his rallies and, “Get ‘em out!”

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