Talking Points

Make Trump and Biden debate in an empty room

When President Trump, presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, and their moderators convene for the general election debates, they should be utterly alone.

Okay, I suppose the television crews probably need to be in the room. But the presidential debates should not have an in-house audience. They should film, just like the original televised debate in 1960, between then-candidates Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, in a studio setting with no crowd.

The immediate rationale, of course, is public health. Organizers of the first debate of this cycle, scheduled for Sept. 29 at Ohio's Case Western Reserve University, are still deciding how to ensure the indoor event doesn't become a vector of COVID-19. Eliminating the live audience altogether would be the safest option.

It would also be the most fascinating.

What would happen if we stripped the candidates of all their usual tactics of crowd manipulation? What if there's no one to snicker at their jokes, or gasp at their swipes, or applaud their preening? What if lines designed to elicit an emotional response in the auditorium to guide the perception of viewers at home suddenly didn't work? Nixing the crowd would fundamentally change the usual dynamics of the debate.

We can get an idea of how Biden's performance would be affected from the final Democratic primary debate, in which he faced Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in a closed studio. The audience-free format was widely considered a success — "10 times better and more informative than any debate I have ever seen," said television producer Shonda Rhimes.

But the difference would be particularly dramatic with Trump involved, because Trump is uniquely effective in interaction with a crowd. He seizes audience energy and bends it to his own ends. His off-script comments seem significantly spontaneous and intuitive, shaped around the immediate reaction of his crowd. If there is no crowd, Trump will be flying blind.

Going crowdless is one of the five debate reforms I proposed four years ago, and though the rest don't have the same public health benefits, they're necessary now more than ever. Read the other four ideas here at The Week.