Washington University in St. Louis is hosting its fourth presidential debate next month. It’s the only university to achieve such a feat.
The school had never been the site of such a prestigious event until 1992, when it was thrust into the national spotlight during an emergency. Washington University associate vice chancellor Steve Givens says the school was contacted by the Commission on Presidential Debates (the group which organizes them) one week before the debate after there were problems with the original sight.
“So in 1992 with one week’s notice, we pulled off a very historic, actually a three person debate, with George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot. So that’s was our first experience with, kind of, being on the hot seat and turning something around very quickly.”
Debate organizers were so impressed with Washington University’s performance under pressure, they chose the school again in 1996. That year President Bill Clinton, who was running for reelection, chose not to participate, and the debate was scratched.
But because of its ability to pull off flawless events, the St. Louis college has hosted a presidential or vice presidential debate every cycle since then, except for 2012.
Givens says the university takes pride in its execution of the events. “The executive director of the Commission on Presidential Debates has often referred to us as the gold standard when it comes to how universities do this.”
Hofstra University in New York trails Washington University as a site for presidential debates. It’s also hosting one of the events the year, its third overall.
Washington University is expecting 2,500 to 3,000 member of the press to be on the campus next for month’s face-off. Givens claims every single TV news network will be on-site as well.
He says providing amenities for such a large group of people is a big challenge for the school. “It’s the technology, for all those people to have a real solid wi-fi system so that they can file their stories. (They also need) places to park, places to station their satellite trucks, and food for all those people.”
Givens notes the presidential debates are not a major in-person event, but a made for TV spectacle. “We’re basically building a TV studio where we usually play volleyball and basketball” said Givens. “There’s a lot of construction. We’ve got to pump in extra air conditioning to keep it cool.”
Givens has a phrase for the colleges commitment on the debates, “The main thing is the main thing”. He says “It’s that 90 minutes of television. We always need to make sure we’re ready to do that, and it’ll go off well, the power will be there.”
About 800 to 900 people will watch the debate in the school’s athletic complex. Because it’s being presented in a “town hall” type format, there’ll be 50 or so people who will be eligible to ask questions along with the moderators.
Unlike the primary debates, where crowds were often vocal, the presidential forums are tightly monitored. Audience members are asked to not react, applaud or shout out, and are told that they’ll be removed if they do.
Givens says it’s not an event for the audience. “The event is for the 100 million television viewers.”