Can Americans live without political theater?

When the Republican Party of Florida hosts a presidential debate tomorrow, many people will be listening to the candidates’ answers, but they may be just as influenced by the audience’s reaction, the Columbia Journalism Review says today.

Through a series of four experiments, the social scientists showed that when an audience cheers, applauds, or reacts favorably to a candidate, viewers are far more likely to hold a positive view of that candidate than had they watched the performance without an audience reaction.

Moments in which an audience reacts are also more memorable and more likely to be reported by the media; these moments, in turn, often become defining sound bites in a campaign season and provide a candidate momentum in the horse race. Ronald Reagan’s “There you go again,” (directed at Jimmy Carter) and Lloyd Bentsen’s “You’re no Jack Kennedy” (to Dan Quayle) are classic examples of these sorts of utterances.

“For the audience watching at home, these moments validate certain perspectives and can suggest to the audience that there is much more consensus about a particular point than there really is,” Steven Fein, a social psychologist, says. “Just because people are louder doesn’t mean it reflects popular opinion.”

The problem primarily is also that the media captures these moments and that defines the debate. For example, when candidate Ron Paul was asked by the moderator whether a healthy 30-year-old who gets sick should simply die, some yahoo in the audience shouted, “yeah,” and that’s what got everyone’s attention, and, hence, coverage.

But the first word in the candidate’s answer was “no.” Too late. The answer was defined by the coverage of the audience.

“What really concerns me is how much the media plays this as a sporting thing. It really sounds like a horse race or a baseball season,” Fein says. There’s this titillating quality to a lot of the coverage–all the bells and whistles and charts and 3-D things. It just cheapens the whole process and makes the emphasis on very superficial things. It becomes what reader and viewer comes to expect. With a little more substance it can make a bit of a difference, I think the audience is capable of more than more of what the media thinks they are.”

Which brings up the obvious question: Is the audience capable of more than what the media thinks they are?