The Debates Are Rigged… for Ratings

And it gave us Donald Trump.

Before the tapes, before the myriad of accusers, before any AP story on The Apprentice, Donald Trump’s first direct question in a presidential debate was on the way he treats women.

It was all the way back in August 2015, in Cleveland, Ohio, with a record 24 million people watching at home, when Megyn Kelly confronts Trump on his record of misogyny:

“Mr. Trump, one of the things people love about you is you speak your mind and you don’t use a politician’s filter. However, that is not without its downsides, in particular, when it comes to women. You’ve called women you don’t like ‘fat pigs,’ ‘dogs,’ ‘slobs’ and ‘disgusting animals.’ …

Donald Trump interrupts… making his now-famous crude joke about Rosie O’Donnell… and the crowd goes wild.

Not all the crowd, mind you. But enough of the crowd for it to come across loudly on screen and set the tone for the millions of viewers watching at home.

At the outset of that debate, Bret Baier says that while “we expect [the crowd] to be enthusiastic, we don’t want to take away from the candidates’ time. He continues…

“We’re looking for something between a reaction to a Lebron James dunk and the Cleveland public library across the street.”

He makes it clear: this night is about being entertained. And so he moves on to the first “question,” one meant solely for entertainment purposes — the will you/won’t you-support-the-eventual-nominee-hand-raising pledge. After hemming and hawing, Trump finally says he cannot make that promise. Half the crowd cheers, then half the crowd boos, and the moderators laugh. The tent is up. The circus had come to town, and it would never leave.

I think our debate system is very broken — in no way do these events, as currently structured, actually help the American public decide on a candidate. There is little to no discussion of policy. These events are about entertainment and ratings and intrigue. They’re about news outlets boosting their ratings and journalists boosting their profiles.

Our debates are problematic, that is certain. But are they harmful? Could they actually have tangible, negative effects on election outcomes?

Far smarter people than me have spent years researching this. The Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania produced a study last year on how to fix our political debates. It’s fascinating. They have recommendations ranging from format and time to locations and sponsorship.

But one of the studies that stood out most to me was one on the effect of audiences. They found that a live audience’s reaction to moments in the debate can in fact affect viewers’ perceptions at home.

And that’s what got me thinking about this first debate and wondering: was this the moment that secured the inevitable?

Was this exchange back in August, 2015, the moment that legitimized the Trump coalition and set the Train on an inevitable and indestructible path?

What would have happened in that first debate, if there were no crowd? Would Trump have even said what he did? Probably — because the man is a pig, and he’s spent years in front of TV cameras and knows how to milk an audience back home. But without a crowd, there would have been no cheering, no audience camera pan, no pause in the moment. Megyn Kelly could have followed up again immediately.

Instead, when she tries to challenge him on it, the crowd grumbles. They (at least part of them) are now on his side, and she is an antagonist. And so when she asks him again, and he lands his canned “politically incorrect” line, the crowd goes nuts. He has one-upped her.

And the audience at home, instead of being forced to sit with the uncomfortable silence of Trump being confronted by his misogyny, instead sees a man who was clever and quick on his feet and who could captivate a room.

It was great entertainment. But I think it anesthetized his growing tribe against any offensive thing he said moving forward. Their own apprehensive laughter at his Rosie O’Donnell joke was normalized: an entire room of people were on the same team. They were cheering loudly, too.

When our debates are structured for entertainment, they reward the entertainers — something that Donald Trump saw and skillfully exploited.

When we judge success based on stage moments — both good and bad — rather than policy ideas and substantive debate over philosophy, we get entire news cycles devoted to a candidate’s cough, or a candidate repeating himself, rather than reports about Trump saying he’d like to do worse than waterboarding.

Donald Trump’s quick-witted response to Megyn Kelly wasn’t political incorrectness, and it shouldn’t have been awarded with laughter, with cheers, with a panning-the-crowd camera like it’s 3rd-and-10 in the Super Bowl. It was contempt for women, misogynistic, and it should have been exposed for what it was, for everyone to see.

For years, Fox News, CNN and others have profited off the entertainment of the debates. This year, it just came at the American people’s expense.

Our debate-as-entertainment gave us Donald Trump. May we learn and demand change, lest we find ourselves here again.