Fifty-six years ago, Vice President Richard Nixon debated Senator John F. Kennedy in the first nationally televised presidential debate, and Nixon won—if you asked people who listened on the radio. Those who watched on television, as the famous history lesson goes, almost all thought Kennedy won, and that Nixon bombed. The camera made all the difference.
With that in mind, on Sunday night I decided to watch the second presidential debate of 2016 by not watching it: I listened to the whole event on CNN radio, using SiriusXM in my car. I couldn’t see the candidates at all, and it changed everything.
Well, it changed a lot of things. It did not necessarily produce for me a different winner, in my mind, than if I had watched it on television. But compared to the way I watched the first debate—a back-and-forth sampling of traditional cable television, live video stream on Twitter, and live video stream on Facebook—it made a world of difference.
I’ll state right off the bat that I thought this debate was ugly and appalling from start to finish. (Politico calls it the “ugliest debate ever.”) If someone “won” that 90-minute circus of insults and vitriol, it was Hillary Clinton, in my opinion (57% of people polled by CNN agreed). That being said, I thought Donald Trump performed much better than he did last time. And I think that part of why I think that was the effect of the radio.
Based strictly on his verbal performance, I came away thinking that Trump performed at least well enough to quell, for now, the imminent Republican Party meltdown that began brewing after the audio from 2005 surfaced this weekend.
I couldn’t see Trump’s facial expressions
Without being able to see the candidates’ faces, I could not see Trump’s facial expressions, which in the first debate were often ridiculous, prolonged, and took away from the points he was making verbally. I couldn’t see him roll his eyes, glare, and glower at Clinton, or exaggeratedly frown just before he interrupts her. I didn’t see him stand physically close to Clinton when she was answering an audience question, though I saw many tweets about him doing that.
I could only hear his words, and while he made many ridiculous comments, he also had moments in which he sounded tough and to-the-point (though never exactly succinct). I’d even bet that certain comments that met with derision from television viewers didn’t play quite so poorly for radio listeners, because what mattered was the oral delivery.
For example, when Trump promised he would bring a criminal investigation against Clinton if he were elected (what is sure to be the most talked about moment of the debate), that moment struck me as shocking but not necessarily as absurd. It was more menacing.
I also enjoy listening to baseball games on the radio. When you’re not watching an event, but hearing it, you still create images in your mind based on what you hear. My image of Trump as he made his strongest statements was, I imagine, more authoritative than he may have looked on television.
And something else that happened after he made some of his comments added to their effectiveness for me: crowd response.
The audience noise played a huge role
Even though moderators Anderson Cooper and Martha Raddatz begged the live audience in St. Louis not to make noise or applaud, there were many moments when they did—and more of them seemed to be pro-Trump moments. When Trump threatened to prosecute Clinton, the crowd roared, seemingly in approval.
And the crowd roared in approval at many of Trump’s interruptions. These moments included when Clinton said she was making a policy of not interrupting Trump, and Trump interrupted, “Because you’ve got nothing to say,” or when Clinton said it’s “awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law of our country,” and Trump said, “because you’d be in jail.”
Many of the lines from Clinton that were effective for me didn’t get the same audible audience response. Lists, in my opinion, were effective, such as when Clinton said, “But it’s not only women… He has also targeted immigrants, African-Americans, Latinos, people with disabilities, POWs, Muslims, and so many others.” Even though I already knew all that, hearing the recitation of a laundry list of groups that Trump has maligned hit home.
But the live audience, based purely on their responses I could hear, sounded like they approved more of Trump’s zingers. And that helped some of his lines land successfully for me too. His line about Lincoln, in particular (“She lied, and now she’s blaming the lie on the late, great, Abraham Lincoln”), made me laugh. All I could do was hear it, not see him, and it was a funny one.
However, the amplified sound, at times, could also hurt Trump.
Trump’s sniffling was extremely loud on the radio
Trump repeatedly and audibly sniffled again throughout the second debate, as he did in the first one. And on the radio, it was even more distracting and strange than I remember it being when I watched the first debate on video. On the radio, the “sniff” sound in the microphone was even more audible than on television.
This could also be an example of how certain senses are heightened when others are taken away—that is, I wasn’t looking at anything to distract me, I could only listen. But the sniffling detracted from a lot of what Trump was saying. I desperately wanted him to blow his nose.
Trump interrupts himself needlessly
By listening, I also noticed a bad habit Trump has as an orator. When making a point, he too often interrupts himself with an added clause, for emphasis, that only takes away from his main point. For example, when he was responding to an audience question about Muslims in the US, he brought up San Bernardino and the bombings, and said people were wounded, and added, “horribly wounded, never be the same.” That sounded, over the radio, pretty silly. He also did it earlier on when asked about his statements on the 2005 tape, and he quickly pivoted to ISIS: “When we have a world where you have ISIS chopping off heads—and, frankly, drowning people in steel cages…” The question was about his comments on women, so it was already an obvious attempt at misdirection to bring up ISIS. To then get down in the weeds describing the specific acts of ISIS was ineffective, and especially so on radio.
He says these interruptions in the same tone in which he often adds, when praising his own business record, that a certain deal or building or achievement was “really great.” He does this repeatedly, and it’s what makes his answers go long.
And speaking of that, both candidates were clearly extremely hard to corral, and that came through painfully on the radio.
Clinton and Trump both gave the moderators an impossible job
Although Trump repeatedly interrupted Clinton, both candidates time and again kept talking even after Cooper or Raddatz told them their time was up. The moderators often had to beg them to stop, and still the candidates would keep going.
That wasn’t surprising or unexpected, but on the radio, only able to listen, it was especially painful to hear. Cooper had to say “your time is up” to Clinton four times (and only once to Trump), and the candidates mostly kept talking after he said it, and the sound of a candidate trying to drown out the moderator was never flattering.
I wouldn’t choose to “watch” the debate this way again, since seeing the candidates is so vital. But listening only on radio was a reminder that the most important part of the debate, and of the campaign, is what the candidates say.
At one point during the second debate, Trump responded to Clinton by saying, “It’s just words, folks. It’s just words.” But words matter. (Trump’s own words, on that recorded conversation from 2005, may prove to be the most important words of the entire election cycle.) And listening to the debate on the radio proved it. The “town hall” format is very visual; there’s a physicality to it and a theatricality to it. Absent sight, only words mattered.
Daniel Roberts is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering sports business and technology. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.