After Saturday’s cage match of a Republican debate, one question has seemingly been asked more than any other — besides, well, “What the hell is happening?”
As Vox’s German Lopez reported:
“Something very peculiar happened at the Republican debate on Saturday night: When Donald Trump talked, the audience booed. Yet when Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and even John Kasich talked, they got loud cheers and applause.”
South Carolina voters are known for their tolerance of shady campaigning: In 2000, John McCain lost the state to George W. Bush after an anonymous push poll insinuated that McCain’s adopted daughter was “an illegitimate black child.” Eight years later, McCain came out on top of a crowded field that included Mitt Romney, after Christmas cards with Mormon themes were sent voters around the state.
But stacking the audience of a televised debate with establishment Republicans — the accusation Donald Trump made numerous times during the debate, and one that his campaign repeated afterwards — would be breaking new ground in voter manipulation.
And yet, this seems to be a possibility: contrary to most debates so far this cycle, there was no ticket lottery in South Carolina for interested voters and members of the general public. The candidates got 600 tickets to split between them, and the rest went to the RNC, state and local elected officials, and the media.
This time, Donald Trump might be right.
But Saturday night was not the first time this election season that the Republican Party has sought to alter perceptions of winners and losers by controlling ticket distribution. In fact, as Republican candidates have demanded more control over debate conditions, down to the smallest detail, the RNC has used its control of the ticketing process to balance the scales in favor of party officials and donors.
Before that first debate of this election cycle, Ohio Party chairman Matt Borges said it was his goal “to have as many people as possible attend the debate at Quicken Loans Arena.” After the debate — in which the 4,500 people in attendance watched Megyn Kelly start a “feud” with Donald Trump by asking… questions — the GOP has tried its best to control crowd sizes.
Two months later, the Republican debate at the Coors Events Center at the University of Colorado, which holds 11,000, took place in front of nearly 10,000 empty seats. After a campaign demanding their inclusion in a debate hosted at their school, 150 CU students received tickets to the event, fewer than the Republican National Committee’s allotment for themselves. “This is a television production more than anything else,” Sean Spicer, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee, told Boulder’s Daily Camera at the time.
Between that debate and the following one, in Milwaukee on November 10, longtime Republican elections lawyer Ben Ginsberg convened a “family dinner” of disgruntled presidential candidates. By the end of the night, they had come up with a draft letter to the RNC: the party would no longer play a role in deciding debate conditions, including types of questions and whether candidates are allowed opening statements. They would be left with just one primary responsibility: ticketing.
The letter — and the candidate insurrection — was quietly buried, likely due in part to the reaction of media organizations to the candidates’ demands. Megyn Kelly, reading the draft letter, joked, “Maybe like a foot massage?”
The next debate, hosted by Republican billionaire kingmaker Sheldon Adelson at his hotel in Las Vegas, included a generous bundle of extra tickets for Adelson. The Las Vegas Review Journal — which Adelson recently purchased over the protests of paper staff — recently endorsed Marco Rubio for the Republican nomination. At the time of the debate, the Trump campaign was especially concerned about Adelson stacking the Venetian audience with establishment voices. We want all campaigns to feel welcome and comfortable,” said Adelson spokesperson Andy Abboud. “Nobody has a thing to worry about.”
New Hampshire’s Republican debate brought Donald Trump’s first on-stage charge that members of the audience were special interest plants. Of the 1,000 people in attendance at the debate, held at Saint Anselm College, 200 were guests of the academic institution.
“They went out, because they’re rich, and they bought the tickets from the kids that were giving the tickets,” Trump said afterwards, referring to “wealthy donors.”
The RNC did not respond to a request for comment about their ticketing practices.
Of course, no matter the ticketing situation, we can’t discount the possibility that the booing is just that: disgust with a candidate who has scratched the last, thinest veneer off of civility off of this election cycle. Maybe the crowds are stacked, but the sentiment shared by those in the audiences at Republican debates might actually be more widely-held than the RNC would assume.
The next Republican debate on the docket will take place at the Moores Opera House at the University of Houston. It’s 800-person capacity is one of the smallest of the entire election cycle. The Texas Republican Party is lotterying an unspecified number of tickets for the “extremely limited” seating.
Photo: Donald Trump speaks with the media in the spin room after the Republican U.S. candidates debate sponsored by CBS News and the Republican National Committee in Greenville, South Carolina February 13, 2016. REUTERS/Chris Keane