Judging by the participation levels here and the traffic on social media, there were plenty of you tuned in to last night’s GOP debate in South Carolina. (If you happened to miss it you can watch the entire thing here on YouTube.) You may as well toss a coin to decide whether this one was an out of control “brawl” (as CNN described it) or just one of the most spirited and aggressive outings to date. Everyone and their sister is picking winners and losers this morning (and I’ll briefly touch on that in a bit) but there was one aspect of the event which really stood out to me even before the first question was asked. The audience at this debate was simply out of control. The volume in the hall was frequently distracting and the choruses of either cheers or boos cut significantly into the allotted time of the candidates on a regular basis. It seems to me that the organizers, the folks who prep the crowd and then the moderator could have kept things a bit more orderly. The Washington Post’s Amber Phillips did their usual Five Minute Fix after it was all over and actually selected as her first three “winners” of the night, Rubio, Bush and John Dickerson. That’s a rather odd call since he allowed the proceedings to be shut down so often by the crowd.
The crowd wasn’t evenly divided in terms of baked in support, either. This morning I did another audio experiment to test a theory I’ve had over the course of this cycle’s debates. Using one of my favorite audio processors, (Audacity) I extracted the audio of the introductions to test the audience reactions as compared to their current favorability as measured in the polls. The results were more than a little telling and seemed to back up the impressions I took from the crowd responses throughout the evening. To help demonstrate this analysis, take a look at this graph of the audience volume while Dickerson introduced the candidates. I’ve blocked off the sections where the moderator was speaking, separating them from the times when the audience was responding to each of them. (Click here for the full size graphic.)
Here are the averages for each candidate measured as a percentage of the peak room noise level. (Note that the moderator is louder than the audience by virtue of being directly mic’d while the audience is being picked up in the background.)
As an initial note, I would suggest that Carson’s numbers were lower than they might have been because he was introduced first and the audience seemed to have not cumulatively decided yet whether they should be vigorously applauding each candidate. It takes a few seconds for the mob mentality to build up in any crowd scenario.
Compare that to the the last set of numbers from A.R.G. and there’s a clear disparity. The bias level of the audience seems more than a bit out of balance with the larger voting public and they were certainly some of the most vocal attendees we’ve had at any such event in this election. Also, while some previous debates were marked by loud cheers when the crowd agreed with the speaker, disagreement was met more with silence and fewer boos and catcalls than we heard last night.
With that out of the way, I’m not going to dig too deep into evaluating the candidates this time. Aside from the confrontations being more bitter at times and maintaining a generally higher temperature on the stage, most of the candidates stayed relatively on their previous messages. One change, as noted in Politico, was that The Donald got a lot more speaking time throughout the event last night. Previously he seemed to fade into the background a bit in the later stages as the establishment hopefuls beat each other up. This time Trump was either called on for answers or given 30 seconds to respond far more often since he was being attacked from all sides for most of the night. The other big battle front was the flame war between Cruz and Rubio, with the word “lying” showing up multiple times, leaving Bush pretty much free to take the higher road and go after Trump.
In order of their standing in the polls, a few quick notes on how they all did.
Trump, as I already mentioned, got a lot of screen time. What did he do with it? While he had some very good moments (despite an obviously hostile crowd) I thought this was probably Donald’s worst debate performance. He allowed Bush to get him flustered and came off as angry and churlish at times. And even if the crowd was clearly not in his corner, you don’t start off a debate by blaming them for booing you and calling them Bush donors and supporters, even if it’s true. It just gives them license to go after you all the harder. Also, he went too far several times, such as seeming to fault George W. Bush for the 9-11 attacks and claiming he knew there were no WMDs in Iraq before going in. There were a number of solid answers during the rest of the debate under all of the noise and I don’t know if this will hurt him with the general public, but it wasn’t a great night for him.
Kasich was a surprise yet again. He may not have had great answers on a number of questions, deflecting the blame for many of the nation’s challenges on people “not getting along” with each other, but he also didn’t draw out the boo birds to any great extent. He tried to stick to the high road and at least avoided taking much damage. If Kasich is hoping to sway the polite southerners of South Carolina, he succeeded in that goal.
Ted Cruz had a solid performance as usual, but his engagements with Rubio made him appear to be knocked off balance for the first time this season. Usually Cruz manages to attack people with a smile on his face, patiently explaining things like the teacher addressing the student. To his credit, Marco Rubio got him off his game a few times, though accusing him of not speaking Spanish was kind of a dud.
I’ll lump Rubio and Bush together for the next slot. They both had the crowd on their side heavily which likely colored the opinion of viewers watching at home in the Palmetto State. Both were a bit more disciplined and aggressive than in previous debates while getting some of their points across. Rubio in particular largely avoided the “robot” accusations and mixed things up with more freestyle moments. Even if it was largely cosmetic rather than substantive, they both probably helped their cause last night.
Finally, I’ve nearly run out of things to say about Ben Carson. He wasted half of his time on his second answer complaining about how he’d not been called on enough in previous debates. The crowd reacted very negatively to that. Other questions, such as the early one on the constitutional issues surrounding replacing Scalia, found him ignoring the subject entirely and talking about some tangential topic. I noticed Ed Morrissey on Twitter responding to one of Carson’s answers by simply saying, “word salad.” That described most of Carson’s night. I don’t think that performance is going to drag up his numbers much at all.
I’ll leave it to our readers to make their own judgements, but that show was not exactly the shining moment of the campaign for the GOP. Poorly controlled by the moderators and frequently erupting into harsh levels of discourse, it didn’t paint a pretty picture for much of the night. But if you were hoping for fireworks then you certainly got your money’s worth.