The Making of a Presidential Debate: DU Prepares to Host First Meeting of Candidates
by Ryan Jardine
According to DU Vice Chancellor of Institutional Partnerships David Greenberg, the quality of the facilities and infrastructure is one of the primary considerations for the Commission on Presidential Debates in choosing debate hosts. The facility chosen by the university to host the debate is Magness Arena (inside the Daniel L. Ritchie Center for Sports and Wellness). This arena is nearly 80,000 square feet and will be converted to become the 2012 presidential debate hall. Inside the arena, the major media co-producers of the debate, including ABC, CBS, CNN, C-SPAN, NBC, and Fox News, will be provided space from which to provide commentary and analysis before and after the debate.
One unique requirement in preparing a presidential debate hall is to establish a complete redundant system for all power and technology to that facility. This ensures that the event and media coverage will be broadcast as scheduled without interruption.
The 1976 presidential debates underscore the importance of this requirement. At these debates, former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter faced off with incumbent President Gerald Ford in the first debates to be held in public venues before of a live audience. Previously, presidential debates took place in television studios. During the first of these debates in Philadelphia, the sound completely failed, resulting in a 27-minute delay. During the delay, both candidates stood nearly motionless, fearing they would appear un-presidential in the face of this unprecedented technological crisis. These candidates were petrified to their podiums, and the nation watched and waited for the sound to be restored. The commission was established, in part, to eliminate these and other technical failures that may happen at a debate.
In addition to transforming Magness Arena, DU had to prepare for everything that comes with a debate of this magnitude, including security and the associated entourage of media, political junkies, and campaign staffers. Before the debate, the U.S. Secret Service will establish a large fenced perimeter to ensure the security of the debate participants. The Hamilton Gym, adjacent to the Magness Arena, will be converted into the Media Filing Center, providing access to the 3,000-plus credentialed media anticipated to attend.
In addition to preparations related to the facilities, media, and the campaigns, DU has led outreach within the university and the community. Since being awarded the debate, DU also has hosted numerous prestigious speakers as part of its Debate Event Series, including Gen. George Casey, Condoleezza Rice, Madeleine Albright, and former U.S. Senators Chris Dodd and Hank Brown. These and numerous other speakers have provided the university and the community with context for many of the issues that we face on a local, national, and global scale. The series will continue through Oct. 9.
The debate itself is the ultimate made-for-TV political event. The commission is responsible for everything that takes place within the debate arena, and DU will be responsible for those things taking place outside the arena. The audience for the debate is limited, and tickets are allocated by the commission to the participating campaigns and to the participating universities. Tickets for DU students will be distributed by random selection through a lottery.
Outside the arena, DU will host a community-wide celebration, called “DebateFest.” These festivities, at the center of campus, will include activities for every subsection of the community. There will be live music, local vendors, and a variety of activities and events centered on the debate. DebateFest is a free event that requires pre-registration, which will open to community members on Sept. 15. DU will televise the debate live outdoors for those in attendance.
There also are many opportunities for members of the DU community to get involved with the debate as volunteers, including being a media runner, assisting the commission with pre-event activities, and assisting with DebateFest itself. Still others can volunteer to act as facilitators for virtual debates among high school students from across the world. These debates are organized by the initiative Join the Debates, which is a national and international civil outreach program led by Explo and the commission’s cooperation.
After the lights fade, the candidates and their entourages will move on to another city and another venue. But the experience of hosting a debate of this magnitude here in Colorado benefit the political process nationally and will serve as an important milestone to the city, the community, and the students at DU who will remember the significant role they played in the 2012 presidential election. D