Joel Fox: Newsom is right. There shouldn’t be a live audience for a debate with DeSantis.

California Governor Gavin Newsom and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis are planning a debate to champion their visions for America. But first, there’s a debate over the rules for the proposed debate. One item of contention between the two governors should be highlighted because it has a bearing on all high-profile candidate debates.

Newsom wants the debate with no audience. DeSantis wants an audience with tickets supplied 50-50 to supporters of each candidate to attend. On this one point, I’m on Newsom’s side.

Candidate debates designed to show a candidate’s ability to express and sell their policy ideas should not be cluttered with extraneous cheerleading. Audience participation in modern political debates have occasionally been disruptive and often is detrimental to voters hoping to learn where candidates stand. Audiences should be prohibited from high-profile political debates that are broadcast on all levels from mayor to president.

Unruly political debates have become more commonplace. The last Los Angeles District Attorney race featuring incumbent Jackie Lacey and challenger George Gascon saw protestors chant and jeer. One protestor even left his seat to approach the debaters causing security officials to scurry onto the stage. Last year, at a Los Angeles mayoral debate at Loyola Marymount University, protestors in the audience individually stood up at different intervals to yell at participants and disrupt the debate. At another mayoral debate at a San Fernando Valley synagogue, protestors shut down the program prematurely shouting profanities at the candidates.

Protestors see their chants as freedom of speech and expression. Protestors at such settings are practicing the opposite—the chants are intended to drown out the speech of candidates attempting to communicate their ideas.

Even when disruptive protestors are not an issue in debates, cheering on candidates serves no purpose. Supporters of a candidate and the candidate’s positions are expected to agree with their candidate. What does that prove? The contest devolves to which side has the most vocal supporters. That doesn’t serve the democratic process or help non-aligned voters judge a candidate’s ideas.

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Many debate audience members are often big donors to the campaigns, candidate’s friends or even campaign staffers. Rarely, are audiences for such debates made up of members of the general public looking to make up their minds on which candidate to support. Even if there are audience members not affiliated with the candidates, the cheering from partisans is designed to sway the non-committed instead of allowing them to reach their own conclusions on a candidate’s position.

Debates can be carried on media for the benefit of voters who have important decisions to make. In this age of high-tech, major debates are broadcast on different platforms for concerned citizens to follow.

Such a model of focusing on the candidates without audience participation isn’t even a new idea. The Kennedy-Nixon presidential debates—the first presidential debates—are the model. Two opponents on stage with a moderator in front of cameras and microphones.

Newsom and DeSantis have different visions on governance for our country. Let them express those ideas without cheerleaders trying to encourage viewer reactions.

Joel Fox is an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Public Policy. Previously, he served as president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and as editor and co-publisher of the California political and business blog Fox and Hounds Daily.

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