Newt Gingrich Apparently Can’t Debate Without His Cheering Section

Newt Gingrich was wondering where his audience was last night.

As I noted in my wrap-up post this morning, one of the most striking differences between last night’s debate and previous affairs, especially those two raucous nights in South Carolina, was the fact that the audience was completely out of the fight. Whether it was Gingrich or Ron Paul, none of the candidates got any reaction out of the audience at all. As it turned out, the moderator of the debate, NBC’s Brian Williams had asked the audience to keep applause to a minimum so it doesn’t eat into debate time. This audience apparently took that advice very seriously and barely made a noise for the entire 1 hour 45 minutes of the debate. Not surprisingly, Newt Gingrich isn’t very happy about losing the part of the debate that made him seem like a “winner”:

Newt Gingrich insists his fans will not be silenced.

Mr. Gingrich, a former House speaker, on Tuesday morning threatened not participate in any future debates with audiences that have been instructed to be silent. That was the case on Monday, when Brian Williams of NBC News asked the audience of about 500 people who assembled for a debate in Tampa to hold their applause until the commercial breaks.

In an interview with the morning show “Fox and Friends,” Mr. Gingrich said NBC’s rules amounted to stifling free speech. In what has become a standard line of attack for his anti-establishment campaign, Mr. Gingrich blamed the media for trying to silence a dissenting point of view.

“I wish in retrospect I’d protested when Brian Williams took them out of it because I think it’s wrong,” Mr. Gingrich said. “And I think he took them out of it because 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.”


Mr. Gingrich clearly noticed something was off, too. “We’re going to serve notice on future debates,” he told Fox. “We’re just not going to allow that to happen. That’s wrong. The media doesn’t control free speech. People ought to be allowed to applaud if they want to.”

For a man known for making ridiculous arguments, Gingrich is really outdoing himself here. Asking an audience to be quiet so that the candidates can be heard from as much as possible is an attack on free speech? Seriously Newt? Leaving aside the fact that the First Amendment only applies to restrictions imposed by the government, the fact remains that these events are sponsored by the media and they have the right to set whatever rules they’d like. Just like they have the right to apply whatever participation rules they want, they also have the right set the standards for audience behavior during the debate, or to decide that there won’t be any audience at all. In that regard, it’s worth remembering that the four debates between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy took place in television studios without an audience. Gingrich is clearly just complaining because the lack of a responsive audience deprived him of what has been, up until now, an effective debate weapon. The fact that it’s a “weapon” that has absolutely nothing to do with the substance of Gingrich’s arguments  seems to me to be an argument against allowing the audiences to be such a major factor.

What Gingrich’s reaction reveals, of course, is something I discussed earlier this week, which Jonathan Bernstein touches upon — when you get right down to it, Newt Gingrich really isn’t as good a debater as his fans think he is:

Monday, without a hooting and hollering crowd, and with a moderator who mostly didn’t choose to get in a fight, the disgraced former speaker showed once again what a poor job he does when he engages with other candidates. Williams started the debate by basically begging the two leading candidates in the polls to tear into each other, and Mitt Romney was ready…or at least he was sort of ready; to my ears, he was only mildly effective at challenging Newt. But Gingrich couldn’t handle being hit. I’m not sure which was worse — that he eventually froze up entirely at one point for, oh, let’s call it a third of a Perry interval, or that he eventually resorted to a sneering “my friend” to refer to Romney. It’s always hard to tell how things play, and, again, what matters most is how (and if) these segments are presented to Republican voters over the next several days before they’re replaced with the next set of debate clips, but he sure looked awful to me.

Granted, a good deal of that is that he’s defending some difficult positions: his work for Freddie Mac and his resignation from Congress. He’s been defending the Freddie Mac one by implausibly arguing that he was just being a historian; now, he added a preposterous claim that he left Congress voluntarily because he didn’t want to be like Nancy Pelosi and serve for a long time. But when called on these claims, at least on Monday, he just deflated, and he was never really back on his game again.

More importantly, though, if Gingrich did manage to win the Republican nomination as a result of some act of mass voter insanity, he’d be without his cheering section in the debates against President Obama too:

I called up the Commission on Presidential Debates, which handles the general election debates, and they confirmed that audience participation has not been allowed in the past in debates, and will not be allowed this cycle either. So, if Gingrich is the GOP nominee, he’ll have to face a silent audience during his debates with the President unless the rules are changed.

And in case you’re wondering, no, the rules will not be changed. So unless Newt could somehow get it arranged so that Jerry Springer hosts all of his debates against the President, he’d be just as neutered as he was last night, and just as ineffective.

FILED UNDER: 2012 Election, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Fiona says:

    …when you get right down to it, Newt Gingrich really isn’t as good a debater as his fans thing he is…

    Exactly. Newt’s talent is throwing out red meat to the base. He needs the cheering crowd to energize him and vice versa. That he now wants to pack up his toys and go home if the debates don’t feature a participating audience indicates that he knows that if he has to answer actual questions or go one-on-one with other candidates in a sane and rational matter, he’s not going to win. It’s only when he can puff himself up into a ball of outrage over his victimization by the media or take down the only black moderator in the room by race-baiting that he looks sharp.

    Newt needs the narcissistic supply a fan club provides; without it he’s a deflated doughboy.

  2. Kylopod says:

    It brings new meaning to the idea that political debates are nothing but “theater.”

  3. MBunge says:

    “he’d be just as neutered as he was last night, and just as ineffective.”

    Newt’s complaint is silly, but his performance against Romney doesn’t say much about how he’d do against Obama and that’s also true for how Romney is performing in these debates.

    In a debate against a Democrat, Newt will get opportunity after opportunity to throw out red meat. In a GOP debate, where the subject matter is largely limited by the fact that everybody except Ron Paul agrees on everything, it’s hard for Newt or anyone to effectively demagogue. Likewise, Romney’s hugely weak responses on his taxes and Bain Capital will get pounded down his throat by a Democrat who won’t be constrained by conservative orthodoxy.


  4. ed says:

    Good call by Newt to demand his cheering section. If Romney whines about it, Newt can call him out for not being in touch with The People, The Real Americans.

    From whoever is broadcasting the debate’s standpoint, they should welcome the Thunderdome Throngs. I assume the crowds increase the viewers. Makes it more interesting–and revealing: good grief are these openly hostile to the poor, the gay, and the generally Other–from where I sit as well.

  5. michael reynolds says:

    This is unfair.

    It’s simple matter of physics. Newt Gingrich is a giant bag of hot air. As he speaks some of that hot air necessarily escapes. So he has to continuously re-inflate using the hot air produced by the audience.

    If you’re going to criticize the bag of hot air for needing more hot air you should in fairness mention that Romney has to eat at least three human babies a day in order to maintain his (arguably) human appearance.

  6. Brummagem Joe says:

    Actually last night was the first entire Republican debate I’ve seen. Cain, Perry, Bachmann were simply indigestible. And despite the fact he didn’t throw any bombs I don’t think he emerged particularly badly in his exchanges with Romney who seemed very robotic with his machine gun delivery of all the bad stuff he’d been able to memorise about Gingrich. Actually he came off I thought a bit whiny and Gingrich didn’t get frazzled. All this is entirely impressionistic of course but that was my take. While I don’t buy the Gingrich as Stephen Douglas shtick he’s no slouch and in a political environment he’s on balance a better speaker than Romney who does come off as one of those businessmen convention speakers who have often cause me to slump in my chair. It’s not much of criticism (I’ve been one myself) but Gingrich can turn on the rabble rousing theatrics anytime he wants and make it seem natural whereas with Romney it’s always going to look phony. It’s like Adlai Stevenson or Tom Dewey, Romney is what he is.

  7. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Newt realizes his target demographic consists largely of sheeple who can’t formulate their own independent thoughts, and accordingly he’s trying to keep the debate decks stacked in his favor.

  8. anjin-san says:

    It’s so unfair. Newt is a victim.

  9. JohnMcC says:

    It sure seemed to this Alabama native that Mr Gingrich’s debates in SC were a replay of Gov George Wallace’s speeches during his presidential campaigns. We’ll see how far that takes him. My prediction is that he’ll be last week’s left-overs within a couple of weeks but the so-called-conservatives might surprise me.

    The big but less-reported story is the damage this past fortnight has done to Mr Romney.

  10. Sam Osborne says:

    Dub, flub and flubdub: Newt Gingrich has gone too far and responsible Republicans interested in a discussion of the issues facing our country have discovered how to negate Newt Gingrich’s capacity to provoke the lynch-mob instincts of a few members of the debate audiences and sidetrack meaningful display of the candidates’ leadership abilities.

    When the cowardly inclined cannot get their hot air pumped into a blowtorch by jeering toadies, they are quickly looked upon as a loathsome inconsequential that is easily avoided. And the harsh voices of echoed support also fade away as rapidly as do the would-be sources that can no longer hide in a thinning throng.

    Once discredited because of his own conduct, Speaker of House Newt’s closest henchmen soon mumbled in total disinterest, “Newt who?”

  11. Brummagem Joe says:


    Agreed. A new poll has Newt’s and Romney’s negative the same within the margin of error. I’m not so sure I agree with the verdict on Newt in terms of the primary. Basically I don’t think the average Republican primary voter is too upset by all the dirt Romney is dumping on Newt.

  12. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Sam Osborne:

    Er…the jeering toadies are the base of the GOP in the south!

  13. legion says:

    He has the same philosophy on wives.


  14. Barb Hartwell says:

    Will he change his tune if he is booed in the next debates. He was pissed when asked about his ex and was applauded, which I thought was strange, but everything about this Primary has been strange.

  15. Herb says:

    The sad, sorry legacy of Joe Wilson lives on…

    Also, encouraging or condoning obnoxious behavior because it benefits you is not leadership. It’s weakness.

  16. ernieyeball says:

    @michael reynolds:

    …you should in fairness mention that Romney has to eat at least three human babies a day in order to maintain his (arguably) human appearance.

    …yer just a sik fuk but I think we all knew that already!

  17. OzarkHillbilly says:

    So unless Newt could somehow get it arranged so that Jerry Springer hosts all of his debates against the President,

    I am not so filled with self-loathing as to actually sit down and watch any of these abortions, but Jerry Springer as moderator? I would pay to see that! Must see TV!!