Presidential Debates Put Colleges In The Spotlight


The presidential and vice-presidential debates provide an excellent opportunity for America’s colleges and universities to receive a good dose of free publicity leading up to and surrounding the actual debate. Weeks of preparation give way to several hours of intense spotlight, an opportunity for Election 2008schools to showcase their campuses or at least the meeting hall where the debate is held.

This year, four universities were given the chance to host debates including the University of Mississippi, Belmont University in Nashville, and Hofstra University in Long Island, New York for the debates between Barack Obama and John McCain, while Washington University in St. Louis recently hosted the lone vice-presidential debate between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden.

Presidential Debates: A Product of the TV Age

Presidential debates are a fairly new phenomenon, a product of the information age. The first presidential debates were held in 1960 when Richard Nixon squared off against John F. Kennedy, but those four debates were held in television studios, not on college campuses. In fact, for their third debate, the candidates were in separate locations with Nixon in an ABC studio in Hollywood while Kennedy was in an ABC studio in New York City.

Though 1960 marked a turning point for the way presidential candidates discussed and debated issues, the next presidential debates weren’t held until 1976 when Jimmy Carter squared off against Gerald Ford. That year, three presidential debates were held, the first two at theaters in Philadelphia and San Francisco, before The College of William and Mary won the distinction as being the first school to host a debate, the last one for that year.

Back to Campus

It wasn’t until 1988 when colleges were called upon again to host the presidential debates with Wake Forest University and UCLA the venues chosen to allow Michael Dukakis and George Bush to square off. In 1992, with three candidates in contention — Bill Clinton, Ross Perot, and George Bush — three schools hosted the debates: Washington University, University of Richmond, and Michigan State University. In 1996, Clinton and Bob Dole met twice, but each occasion was held at a theater.

In 2000, George W. Bush and Al Gore squared off three times with the University of Massachusetts, Wake Forest University, and Washington University serving as hosts. In 2004, Bush and John Kerry battled three times and met at the University of Miami (FL), Washington University, and at Arizona State University. Washington University has the distinction as being the only school to host four presidential debates with no other school having held more than two. Credit the school’s central location with being the reason it has been picked over and over again.

An Audience of College Students and Faculty

For schools who get to host a debate, an opportunity to have the candidates on campus allows some students and faculty members to witness the debate up close. As in the case of the vice-presidential debate, Washington University used that opportunity to announce via a press release how the school was preparing, noting the national media attention given as well as sharing remarks from students.

“Politics are coming to real life on our campus,” said Bill Restemayer, a freshman from North Dakota involved in student government. “There’s excitement in the air, and it’s all students are talking about — arguing back and forth from both sides. This debate will let me see firsthand if public service is my life’s calling.”

The school also hosted a number of media shows on the day leading up to the debate including the CBS’ The Early Show, MSNBC’s Hardball With Chris Matthews, and other events scheduled by Fox News, CNN, newspapers, and major media outlets.

“I think the vice presidential candidates might truly make or break the presidential election this year,” says senior Brittany Perez, president of Student Union, an undergraduate student government organization. “We want to involve as many students as possible in this process.”

“It’s going to bring a lot of visibility to the University,” notes Perez, who’s already been featured in a number of news stories on the debate. “It’s exciting for students to be a part of it. We have more than 300 student volunteers who will be participating directly in debate preparation, which is invaluable experience.”

Nearly 8000 Washington University students entered a drawing for the 300 student seats set aside for the debate, with most receiving notification at the last minute whether there would be room for them to attend.

Source: Washington University in St. Louis

Further Reading

Commission on Presidential Debates

Presidential Debate Histories — ’96 Debates

Vice Presidential Debate 2008 — Washington University in St. Louis

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Categories: Campus News