Why Newt Gingrich needs noisy crowds

at 10:00 AM ET, 01/24/2012

On Fox News Tuesday morning, former House speaker Newt Gingrich said he wouldn’t “allow” future debate moderators to tell the audience not to applaud during the event.

“We’re going to serve notice on future debates that we won’t tolerate – we’re just not going to allow that to happen ... the media doesn’t control free speech.” Gingrich said. “The media is terrified that the audience is going to side with the candidates against the media, which is what they’ve done in every debate.”

Gingrich’s comments come after Monday night’s quiet debate in Tampa , a decided contrast to the more raucous affairs in the recent past.

Gingrich has premised his entire campaign on the idea that he would out-debate President Obama. When his campaign lacked the funds to compete on television, he rose in the polls through debate performances that were heavy on the sort of red-meat rhetoric — “food stamp president”, for one — that conservative audience eat up.

Turning the crowd against a moderator has become Gingrich’s signature move — used to perfection in two debates in South Carolina last week. Asked about his comments about food stamps and his second marriage, Gingrich deflected by attacking the premise of the questions.

Even when he was attacking the press, audience approval earned Gingrich grudging praise from the media after-the-fact. The crowd reaction tends to influence the press analysis of a debate — it’s impossible to judge a performance without taking it into account.

Gingrich was far more restrained in this debate than in past set-to’s — perhaps grasping that attacks that worked when the crowd cheered him on might have seemed churlish and rude in a silent room.

But raucous debates are rare. Cheering and shouting were banned in all three general election debates between Barack Obama and John McCain. (Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney‘s team is already pointing this out — one adviser told Right Turn’s Jennifer Rubin “it’s like picking an Olympic athlete to swim for us who is afraid of water.”)

If Gingrich were to win the nomination, of course, he could push for those rules to be changed. His beloved Lincoln-Douglas debates were often interrupted by noise. For now, it seems, as much as he loves debates, he only loves primary debates.

 
Read what others are saying