The Audience's Role in a Debate

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Republican presidential hopefuls Rick Santorum,  Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul participate in the CNN Southern Republican Leadership Conference Town Hall Debate in Charleston, SC Republican presidential hopefuls participate in the CNN Debate in Charleston, S.C. (Emmanuel Dunand/Getty)

With 23 debates held thus far, the GOP candidates have conjured a great deal of applause, cheers, boos and laughter. But whether or not audience reactions are allowed is largely dependent on the commentator and arena: Brian Williams instructed the audience of this Monday's debate broadcast on NBC to refrain from clapping or any verbal reactions. On Tuesday, Newt Gingrich told "Fox & Friends" host Gretchen Carlson that he disagrees with silencing debate audiences, and threatened not to participate in future debates that prohibit reactions.

Janet Brown is executive director of the Commission on Presidential Debates. Janet has helped to set the rules for many debates over the past 25 years, including whether or not to allow audience applause and reaction.


Janet Brown

Produced by:

Shia Levitt

Comments [8]


If a conservative is getting applauded too much the media solution is to ban applause.
Where was this priggish adherence to decorum when for years leftist protesters would disrupt
official hearings, debates, and speeches and got more praise or indifference than rebuke?
If "Occupying" a park for weeks on end is free speech than why isn't applauding a candidate?

Debates should be conducted at a board room table with no audience and with only the candidates words filling the room and an inane question can be dealt with without distraction.

Jan. 26 2012 10:21 AM

The audience reactions and how the candidates play up to them is very revealing and helpful. When Rick Perry was cheered for the death penalty and I smiled, I saw enough. Perhaps this type of demagoguery laced talk is more appropriate for rallies, but a televised debate shows a much bigger audience how the candidates are appealing to there base in a context that is totally transparent, as opposed to the soundbites that make the highlight reels (Jon Stewart, News Hour, The Takeaway, etc.)

Applause lines tell the viewer very much. We don't need to be protected from them. The other candidates and the pundits can speak about it all later)

How much did we learn when the politician at the State of the Union yeller "You lie".

Jan. 26 2012 10:08 AM
dLZ from new england

political theatre in this country has become a spectator sport, complete with fans on the sidelines acting like the 12th man at a football game. but history shows that the lincoln-douglas debates were full of audience participation and a very lengthy back-and-forth between a pair of smart, opinionated orators. sadly, we no longer have smart orators running for office.

the fact that we now have booing and people talking back is simply a sign our our nation's lack of civility. those who agree with audience participation have something to gain by this, and i think it speaks volumes about the divisiveness newt wishes to foster in this country by making it an issue during his campaign.

Jan. 26 2012 10:07 AM
Cynthia Islas from Ballinger, Texas

A debate is only the candidates speaking without the "approval" of the audience. If I want comedy central then I would watch that. The audience has no influence on my opinion of the candidates, but I prefer to listen to the speakers - only. Candidates cannot/should not rely on the audience for help in any way.

Jan. 26 2012 10:02 AM
Bob from Pittsburgh

The only way I would allow audience participation is if the audience was represented by an appropriate cross section of this country. Put in a group of republicans, a group of democrats, a group of every party. A group of white, a group of black, a group of every race. Make sure all religions are represented. Then ask Newt if he wants the audience to participate.

Jan. 26 2012 10:00 AM
Molly Tabachnikov from Coconut Creek, FL

There should not be a live audience at the debates. If Speaker Gingrich wants a revival meeting, he can set up a tent in an open field. If he wants a debate, let him present his analyses and solutions calmly and logically and allow his opponents to do the same.

Jan. 26 2012 09:35 AM

Fine with me if the newt skips the debates. Hold him to his "verbosiage."

Jan. 26 2012 09:30 AM
CSP from NYC

I don't think Newt's blatant race-baiting would have been so successful without the enthusiastic response of the good citizens of South Carolina, where the Stars&Bars still flies over the state capitol...

Jan. 26 2012 07:33 AM

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