Organizing a Republican primary debate is tricky business. You can absolutely nail the format; absolutely nail the questions; absolutely nail the moderators. Yet there’s only so much you can do about the audience, as recent debates have shown.
Politico/NBC kicked off the in-poor-taste trend, when its debate audience applauded the execution of 234 people in Texas under Gov. Rick Perry.
The CNN/Tea Party Express debate saw a few hecklers cheer the death of a hypothetical uninsured man:
At the Fox/Google debate, some boos greeted a gay man who had served his country in the military:
Can Washington Post/Bloomberg break this streak? Can the audience that assembles at Dartmouth College stay politically correct for a couple of hours? Let’s look at the nitty-gritty here.
According to a Bloomberg spokesperson, the audience will consist of roughly 860 people. That’s small, especially compared to the Fox/Google audience of more than 5,000. With that number, the Fox/Google people were verily asking for a high-profile disruption.
Herewith a breakdown of the Washington Post/Bloomberg audience. Tickets to the event are split among the following:
* Dartmouth College people: members of the college community, faculty, students, and so on.
Heckle risk analysis: Red alert. The motto of Dartmouth College is ”Vox Clamantis in Deserto,” Latin for the “voice of one crying in the wilderness.” Could you ask for a more blatant promotion for debate heckling?
* Washington Post, Bloomberg, and WBIN-TV.
Heckle risk analysis: Low. These are clearly responsible media outlets (disclosure: I am employed by one of them, obviously.). They’re far more interested in putting on a clean debate than in the swell of Internet traffic that comes from a good heckling incident.
Heckle risk analysis: High. If the candidates themselves are willing to publicly trash modern medicine without evidence and liken climate-change deniers to Galileo, then who’s going to keep their supporters in check?
* New Hampshire Republicans: The sponsors worked with their in-state partners to compile a list of “prominent” state Republicans who’ll be in attendance.
Heckle risk analysis: Low. Prominent Republicans don’t shout.
Debate organizers are hoping to put a lid on outbursts via carrot-and-stick warnings. According to the Bloomberg spokesperson, this is how they read:
“The debate is a live television broadcast and we ask that you please work with us to make it enjoyable for the candidates, the live TV viewers and yourselves.”
That would be the carrot.
“Please hold your applause until the end of the debate so we can give the candidates more time to talk and answer questions. Anyone disrupting the debate will be first asked to leave and then removed promptly by security in the house.”
And that would be the stick.
We’ll close out here with some advice for the sponsors: If there is indeed an embarrassing outbursts at some point, you’re going to have to find a way to spin out of responsibility. On that front, contact Megyn Kelly of Fox News. She did a great job of just that after the gay-boos episode at the Fox/Google debate. She showed that she can split any hair and gloss over any shameful dynamic in excusing bad behavior at your debate: