During the Republican primary debates, audience members were often quite rowdy, applauding key lines and laughing along with Donald Trump’s insults. Is that what should be expected on Monday night, when Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump face off at Hofstra University?
The answer is likely no, as this time around, audience members are being specifically instructed to remain quiet throughout the 90 minute debate, not applauding for anything Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump say. If they do make noise, they will be escorted out of the auditorium.
“Unlike the primary debates, we specifically instruct the audience at the general election debates to remember that they are there as ‘witnesses to history’ and are not to applaud cheer or demonstrate,” the co-chair of the Commission on Presidential Debates told The Hill.
Still, even though the audience is instructed not to make any noise, hearing some laughter after a particularly good zinger won’t be too surprising, and this reaction breaking up the silence has made for some hugely significant debate moments throughout history, such as Ronald Reagan’s quip about “youth and inexperience” at a 1984 debate against Walter Mondale.
It remains to be seen if the live audience actually follows the rules and remains quiet, but if so, that is certainly a change of pace for Trump, who tends to rely heavily on a live audience. At his rallies, Trump feeds off his crowd’s energy and includes several call-and-response lines that get them fired up. And during the primary season, this carried over into the Republican debates, when some of the most memorable Trump moments were followed by a big reaction from those in attendance.
For example, there was the August 2015 Republican debate when Trump insulted Rosie O’Donnell while answering his first question, and his line was followed by about 15 straight seconds of laughter and cheering that set the tone for the rest of the night. Trump also in some instances used the audience’s boos to his advantage; during one debate, Trump was booed when he shushed Jeb Bush, but he quickly responded to the negativity by saying of the crowd, “That’s all of his donors and special interests.” He quite effectively painted himself as the rebel standing up to the establishment, thus making the boos a positive thing for him.
Not only will Monday night be the first time Trump goes head-to-head with a single opponent, but assuming the rules are followed, it will also be his first time debating in front of a completely silent audience. Will he still be able to perform as well under these conditions? Will there be audience members who, as at Trump rallies, heckle the Republican candidate and have to be escorted out?
We’ll find out tonight when the first presidential debate begins at 9:00 p.m. Eastern Time. The debate will run for 90 minutes without any breaks or commercial interruptions.