Stand-Up Comics Evaluate How Well Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney, and Newt Gingrich Handle Hecklers

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Jan. 27 2012 4:30 PM

Let Me Finish

Stand-up comics assess how Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney, and Newt Gingrich handle hecklers.

Mitt Romney heckled
Mitt Romney heckled

CHIP SOMODEVILLA/AFP/Getty Images

JACKSONVILLE, Fla.—These are boom times for hecklers. Republican members of Congress have scaled back public town hall meetings, chastened by the screams that embarrassed the old Democratic Congress. Powerful Democrats, meanwhile, get “mic-checked” by Occupy protesters. And three of the four remaining Republican presidential candidates—Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich—are constantly on alert for hecklers. (Nobody seems to heckle Ron Paul; perhaps it’s unconstitutional.)

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

Handle a heckler well, and you collect prizes. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie started to go Don Rickles on people who acted out at his events—voilà, instant national stardom. Handle a heckler poorly, and you end up like Ben Konop, once a rising Ohio politico, now famous for this clip in which a guy boos him for three minutes. And be warned, Gov. Christie: A politician who perceives himself as skillful at fending off audience attacks could be putting himself in danger of becoming the next George Allen.

Romney, Santorum, and Gingrich handle crowd eruptions in completely different ways. Whose strategy is best? I asked two stand-up comedians, Rob Delaney and Paul F. Tompkins, to apply their expertise to the question.

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Rick Santorum

The winner-by-a-fingernail of the Iowa caucuses draws a very specific kind of heckle: the gay rights bellow. Ever since Santorum warned of incipient “man on dog” relations if gay marriage was legalized, pro-gay voters have daydreamed about humiliating him. At Santorum’s final pre-vote event in New Hampshire, I watched as stunt candidate Vermin Supreme (a Democrat, technically) put his bullhorn on a window and warned of human-canine intercourse happening outside. At a much more widely broadcast event, Santorum refused to concede an argument about gay marriage to a group of college students.

What do we learn? Santorum hears a heckler and senses an argument he can win—even if the crowd isn’t with him. He uncorks the kind of hyper-confident verbal assault that defined his Senate career, the same impulse that leads him to take eight minutes to answer a town hall question. He knows that the heckler hates him for ideological reasons; to win, he will deploy the facts he’s honed for years, stuff the heckler won’t know how to answer.

The problem, according to our experts: Santorum won’t just win the argument and move on.

“He barely wins against an emotional crowd,” says Tompkins, “with an argument that could have been torn apart had the crowd actually expected him to have an argument. Maybe they forgot that homosexuality and abortion are Rick Santorum's twin muses, and thoughts of them are never very far. In the end, he blows it by staying out there long enough to get booed. He should have thrown the mic down and walked off.”

Mitt Romney

The richest candidate in the race draws the most Occupy protests. I’ve watched 99 percenters bum rush Romney three different times, once in Iowa and twice in New Hampshire. The Iowa confrontation was instantly legendary—Romney started taking questions at the state fair, got into it with liberal activists, and told one of them that “corporations are people.”

Romney is slippery—hard to pin down, no matter how strong the heckle. When he’s interrupted, he has a long defense of capitalism ready to go, the words ready to be rearranged in whatever order fits. He bounced off the Iowa heckle to make a campaign promise: “I won’t raise your taxes.” In New Hampshire, he belittled the heckler as un-American, and moved right on. It’s a microcosm of his entire campaign strategy, a reliance on facts and zingers that are lab-tested for conservative voters.

“He's smart, he knows his stuff, he's aggressive,” says Delaney, pointing to the Iowa video. “He shows humility in his awareness concerning the fact that people present at the gathering will not vote for him and he finishes with a hearty salvo cut from his stump speech. He is, in essence, a bad MF in that video. Not that I'd vote for him in 1,000 years, but anybody who's not impressed with him after that performance has never spoken to a crowd.”

Newt Gingrich

His presidential campaign has evolved in stages, from collapse to surge to collapse to surge. His response to hecklers has evolved, too. When he was struggling, Newt blew off hecklers by pretending they weren’t there. (Michele Bachmann is/was a believer in the same method.) At a town hall for Hispanic voters in New Hampshire, I watched Newt keep his voice at the highest polite volume as Occupiers marched outside, taunting him, audible through the walls.

The post-New Hampshire Gingrich—the one who elbowed past Romney to win South Carolina—is a happy heckler-defanger. Presidential campaigns are serious things, and hecklers, like debate moderators, are unserious. At an event in Tampa, I watched him respond with pure snark to a heckler who doubted that he was a Reagan conservative: “Did you know Ronald Reagan?” In Coral Springs, he took the same approach. Did this idiot know what she was getting into? He’d teach her.

“He handles it like a pro,” says Tompkins. “You don't cut the heckler off. You let her go. Give 'em enough rope. Use the time she's babbling to craft your comeback. Then BAM. You unleash your zinger with a smile. They come at you again? Same thing. Keep indulging her until the crowd completely turns on the heckler. Which they will—you've been smiling the while time, letting her say her piece, right? The crowd can't be mad at you—you're just being polite in a funny way! But just insulting enough that they taste a little blood in their mouths! THIS WOMAN MUST BE SILENCED AND THEY WILL GLADLY DO THAT FOR YOU! GUARDS, SEIZE HER!”

Tompkins argues that Gingrich is the best heckler-defanger of the three; Delaney says it’s Romney. I’m inclined to agree with Delaney, because Romney hews so closely to his script that a small dose of WTF makes him sound fresh. In a series of heckler confrontations, Romney produced one quasi-gaffe: the “corporations are people” line. But that’s not too different from the gaffes he makes whenever he’s asked about money. Alone among the candidates, the hatred of hecklers actually brings out Romney’s best.