At the last Republican debate, when he got booed for shushing Jeb Bush, Donald Trump turned on the audience and accused them of being special interests to whom the party had given most of the tickets and that that group did not like him because he did not need or want their money and thus they could not influence him. This made me curious as to how these audiences are picked. It clearly matters since the applause or boos that a candidate gets in response to answers can subtly influence the way that they are viewed by the TV audience and the media. In the last debate, for example, Marco Rubio got booed quite lustily, something that I had not seen before.
In a subsequent interview, Trump said that he had been given just 20 tickets. Assuming that each candidate got the same number, that means that most of the crowd must have been invited by the debate organizers, which consists of the Republican party, ABC News, St. Anselm College that provided the venue, and a group called Vote4Energy that provided sponsorship and is a lobbying arm of the American Petroleum Institute. That last fact may partially explain why not a single question on climate change was posed to the candidates.
It turns out that Trump may be right. The audience was not mainly made up of ordinary New Hampshire residents. Many were from outside the state because these debates have become like hot ticket Super Bowl parties for the wealthy where they get to hobnob with the candidates and try to influence them.
Major fundraisers and top contributors fly in on private jets and gather in hotel suites before start time, marveling over the latest twists in the race. Once inside the venue, they snap selfies in front of the stage. They anxiously root for their favored candidates, swapping text messages with friends as the jabs fly back and forth.
The regular attendance by wealthy contributors is also due in part to the control that the RNC exerted over the primary debates this cycle. The national party doles out the tickets, unlike in past years when admittance was in the hands of the television networks and local parties hosting the forums.
The RNC allocates blocks of tickets to individual campaigns, volunteers and activists. But a chunk is also set aside for top money players such as Team 100 contributors, who have given the annual maximum of $33,400 to the party, according to people familiar with the arrangements.
The campaigns also set aside debate seats for their biggest financial backers, arranging receptions and briefings for them on debate days.
So keep that in mind when gauging the response of the audience at the venue.