CNN’s GOP Debate Analysis (Correctly) Swings at the Audiences and Misses

CNN continued their series of articles from Southern Illinois Univeristy’s Todd Graham covering the Presidential debate season. CNN employs Graham because of his experience as a college debate coach credited with a national championship. As a college debate coach who has also coached for a national championship, I thought I should make a practice of responding to Todd’s series.

This time, Graham focuses on the the reactions of the live studio audience and the role that those could play in influencing voters. Graham’s article counsels voters against allowing the calls of a vocal minority to influence the opinions of voters. The audiences at the GOP debates this season certainly have provided rowdy outbursts that add little to the substance of the debates, but Graham’s call to ignore the audience is just as dangerous as blindly accepting every one of their catcalls.

Among the well-documented controversial crowd reactions this debate season are cheering the enormity of executions Rick Perry has overseen in Texas, loudly affirming that those suffering serious accidents without health insurance should be allowed to die, and booing a soldier serving in Iraq because he is openly gay. In the most recent debate we had cheering support of U.S. soldiers urinating on dead Afghan bodies and condemning the Obama administration for adhering to military policy by supporting the eventual punishment of the Marines involved, and booing the fact that Romney’s father was born in Mexico (indeed, the booing began then…the fact that George Romney came to America illegally was just gravy).

Graham cautions that these ill-considered responses could represent a vocal minority, but Graham does not address that many of these attacks began with a small reaction that was picked up by the crowd at large. When a lone voice calls out, the crowd is faced with the decision to shout them down, sit silently, or offer wild affirmation. The fact that these reactions snowballed tells us that there is sympathy beyond a vocal minority — it tells us that these reactions go beyond rowdy outliers, and encompass those who would remain silent in their opinions but react viscerally when it is put into words. As a counter, does anyone really believe that the crowd would have joined in enthusiastic support if a lone audience member had booed Rick Perry’s executions or called “no” to the idea that society should welcome the death of the uninsured?

Analyzing an audience is more than dismissing it as either a “mob” or a “vocal minority.” It is a dynamic entity compiling the individual thoughts of many, providing a snapshot of what resonates with everyone in the group. For example, on the other end of the political spectrum, the Occupy movement has its share of “vocal minorities” making more radical claims, but those did not get taken up by Zuccotti park as a whole — when walking by the strains that caught fire and revealed the mood of the whole movement were income equality and the need for campaign finance reform to end the symbiotic relationship between corporate money and elected officials.

While Graham says that we should not give these audiences undue regard, nor should we ignore what they are telling us about the candidates. Unlike an academic debate where the judge is a relatively impartial, democracy is, in theory, a participatory relationship between all the people and the government. Candidates are involved in a symbiotic relationship with their supporters, simultaneously shaping the opinions of supporters to align with the candidate and shifting policy views to ensure that the candidate receives the continued support of his or her constituencies. When the mood of a candidate’s supporters (especially among the base) becomes palpable, it tells us about the way that candidate will govern if elected.

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