Hosting Presidential Debates at Universities a Farce

by Ian Tuttle - St. Johns College on November 1, 2012

It’s widely accepted that universities favor Democrats, liberal policies, and leftist philosophies – so why do such blatantly biased locales get to play host to the mostly widely watched political debates of our time?

The bookstore at Lynn University, in Boca Raton, Fla., recently sold T-shirts that read: “We’ve never heard of you either” – a fitting gag gift for the campus, an obscure, private school thrust into the spotlight recently as it played host to the final presidential debate between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

Ever wonder how a university lands such a glorious gig? It’s a strenuous application process. AP’s Matt Sedensky writes:

To be considered as a debate host, schools must submit expansive proposals detailing their adherence to countless criteria, from the humidity in the hall (not more than 50 percent) to the number of nearby hotel rooms (at least 3,000) to the size of the candidates’ dressing rooms (750 square feet).

Guidelines dictate everything from the precise dimensions of the stage to the number of parking spots to the carpeting on the floor. The application comes with a $7,500 fee and selected sites must pay $1.65 million to the Commission on Presidential Debates to cover costs.

Lynn University—a 50-year-old school of just 2,100 students—sunk $5 million into facility upgrades for the debate. Multiply that by the three other colleges that also played host to this year’s debates: the University of Denver, in Denver, Col.; Centre College, in Danville, Ky.; and Hofstra University, on Long Island—which also hosted the final debate of the 2008 election cycle.

For midsized schools, such as Hofstra, seeking to increase their draw, hosting a presidential debate adds an asterisk to admissions advertisements; for unknowns, such as Lynn, it’s a chance to get on the map.

But it has not always been that way. Before the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) was established in 1987—“to ensure that debates, as a permanent part of every general election, provide the best possible information to viewers and listeners”—presidential debates were held at a variety of venues: the famous 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debate, which arguably turned the tide of the election toward the youthful Democratic nominee, took place in the Chicago studios of WBBM-TV, sans any in-studio viewers.

General election debates were not held again until 1976, when President Gerald Ford and Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter agreed to a series of three televised debates, this time before a studio audience. In late September they clashed at Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Theatre, the oldest continuously operating theatre in the country, which no doubt lent the event extra gravitas.

But since 2000, the CPD has chosen exclusively educational institutions as hosts. In an interview with the Huffington Post’s Lance Gould, Meena Bose, director of Hofstra University’s Peter S. Kalikow Center for the Study of the American Presidency, defended that preference:

Before the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) was created [in 1987], the debates were typically held in television studios or at other settings across the country. But because of challenges with organizing and differences of opinion between the campaigns, the Commission was created as a nonpartisan resource for coordinating between the two campaigns. University and college campuses are an ideal setting because, of course, they reach our youth voters, and in many cases, students who will be voting for the very first time.

For an organization that cites “educating voters” as its chief goal, that makes a kind of sense. But when a debate’s studio audience averages less than 100 members, it’s difficult to argue that “exposure” is the goal of hosting the events on-campus.

Moreover, it is no longer evident that America’s universities are the best sites for objective public education. Young America’s Foundation, an organization that promotes conservative activism on college campuses, reports that liberal professors outnumber their conservative counterparts 3-to-1 nationally; in 2008, they supported the incoming Obama administration at a ratio of 9-to-1. Among 2012 commencement speakers at the country’s top 100 schools (as ranked by U.S. News and World Report), 71 were liberal, while only ten were conservative.

Furthermore, Bose’s claim that university campuses are“an ideal setting because, of course, they reach our youth voters” seems tendentious at best. Only in certain cases does the placement of presidential debates at university campuses increase youth attention. At the first debate, at the University of Denver, the limited ticketing went to university students, faculty, media, and friends and families of the campaigns. That may have given a select number of students a firsthand experience of national politics, but it creates the obvious problem of a studio audience that is nothing at all like the general electorate.

Hofstra University’s debate audience consisted of 82 “undecided” voters selected by the Gallup polling organization—but on Long Island, as National Review’s Jonah Goldberg pointed out in his post-debate analysis, those voters were less “undecideds” than “dyspeptic Democrats.” Furthermore, their questions were filtered through moderator Candy Crowley, whose intervention during Mitt Romney’s discussion of the Fast and Furious “gunwalking” scandal and the Benghazi terror attacks has provoked questions about her objectivity.

With tiny audiences that very rarely represent anything approaching the American electorate, it’s a question why a studio audience is necessary at all.

Undoubtedly the Commission on Presidential Debates has a daunting task. But there is the sneaking feeling that the best rationale for hosting debates on university campuses is that it lends the event an aura of intellectuality often absent from stump speeches and campaign ads.

But liberal partisans have long overwhelmed the academy, and to have the candidates address a room of students and campaign associates wraps the event in more pretense than it would if the opponents simply debated alone in a television studio with the moderator, or if they hashed it out at a campaign stop in a key swing state.

The latter option raises abundant security and logistical concerns, certainly—but it’s hard not to feel a bit of nostalgia for the days of Lincoln-Douglas.

Fix contributor Ian Tuttle is a student at St. John’s College.

IMAGE: Steve Rhodes

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