The next GOP debate will be held in Las Vegas on December 15th and it’s time for a discussion of crowd control. No… we’re not talking about riot police keeping the protesters outside at bay with pepper spray, but rather the control that crowds exert over individuals and viewers in the case of televised events. The candidates still in the running for the Republican nomination are worried about this particular venue because the debate will be held at a resort owned by billionaire political donor Sheldon Adelson and they’re concerned that he’s going to stuff the audience with supporters of whoever he winds up endorsing. (Politico)
Top campaign officials on Monday pressed the Republican National Committee on whether Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson would receive an extra block of tickets for next month’s GOP debate at his Venetian hotel — and potentially stack the crowd for his favored candidate.
Adelson, one of the most prolific Republican donors in the country, has yet to endorse a contender, though it is widely believed he will eventually get behind Marco Rubio and direct millions of dollars his way. On Dec. 15, his posh hotel will play host to the next Republican debate, which will be broadcast on CNN.
On a private afternoon conference call with GOP campaigns to discuss planning for the debate, which was hosted by RNC chief of staff Katie Walsh, Chris LaCivita, a senior adviser to Rand Paul, kicked off the discussion by stating, “I have concerns about our friends in Vegas being given an extra block of tickets that could be used for crowd stacking.”
Negotiations over debate arrangements can get seriously petty at times, with details over things like the height of the podiums or the number of pens you can carry popping up. (Insert your own green M&Ms reference here.) This, however, isn’t one of those cases. It’s always tricky to figure out how many people to let in to watch a debate live and how the tickets will be allocated. And in this case there’s a good reason for it.
No matter how many instructions you give to the audience, you’re never going to stop them from reacting to the comments made by the candidates. It would be wonderful if you could claim to have just rounded up one thousand completely undecided voters with no built-in bias or preferences, but what are the odds of that ever happening? Generally the campaigns are given blocks of tickets and some others are made available for general consumption. Beyond that you just hope for the best.
But the reaction of the audience is caught on microphones even if the camera doesn’t swing out to the crowd. That matters, and it’s because of the same reason that situation comedies began using canned laugh tracks back in the 1940s and are still using them today. If you’re in a crowd watching a comedian and everyone else is laughing, you’re more likely to laugh yourself. TV producers figured out fairly early on that the same thing applies to the person sitting at home on their couch. If they hear others supposedly laughing they will be more likely to chuckle and walk away thinking it was a more enjoyable experience.
The same goes for a debate. If Adelson endorses Rubio (as is widely expected) and he can get a significant number of pre-programmed supporters in the audience, the post debate results could reflect that. If a big part of the audience cheers for every Rubio answer and boos when Trump or Carson speak, that can definitely have an effect on how some of the undecided viewers respond when the pollsters call the next day. This was always going to be a complicated and perhaps insurmountable problem in debate planning, but there’s no excuse to allow one person to load up the audience just because he owns the venue.