What you need to know about the Oct. 9 presidential debate at Washington University | St. Louis Public Radio

What you need to know about the Oct. 9 presidential debate at Washington University

Oct 6, 2016

Updated Thursday, Oct. 6 at 1:20 p.m. with traffic closure details  Last Monday night featured the first presidential debate of the year and the first time Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump faced off one-on-one over plans and policy. It was the most-watched debate in televised debate history.

But what about the second round? In addition to a different format, a town hall, the second debate is at Washington University. It has hosted more debates than any other institution in history.

On Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air, we heard from the lead organizer of this year’s second presidential debate, which will take place on Sunday. Steve Givens, the associate vice chancellor and chief of staff at Washington University, is the chair of the presidential debate steering committee. 

Below, we’ve highlighted some of the interesting tidbits we learned about the past and present state of debates at Wash U:

What does it cost Washington University to host the presidential debate?

For the first debate that Givens organized in 2000, the fee the university paid to the debate commission was $450,000. This time, that upfront fee is just shy of $2 million. Combine that with other costs the university will incur, including the set-up of a state-of-the-art media center, security, staffing and crowd management, and Washington University will end up paying anywhere between $4-5 million to host the debate on Oct. 9.

Why does Washington University continue to host presidential debates?

Washington University has hosted presidential, or vice presidential, debates six times since 1992 — that’s the most of any other institution in the history of televised debates. With such a cost, as stated above, why does the university still opt to host them?

Steve Givens
Credit Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio

“I think some people think we make money on it or we get a big bump in applications, but, in fact, neither of those things is really true,” Givens said. “We certainly get a bump in recognition and the name is out there a bunch locally and nationally. People will hear our name, see our beautiful campus, big news organizations will broadcast from our campus. It is good from that perspective, but we’ve found over the years that it provides our students with an experience that there’s no other way to get.”

Students have the opportunity to volunteer at the debate and some will even get tickets to sit in on the debate itself. Otherwise, they get to take in the very specific air on campus around debate time.

“They are here for history being made,” Givens said. “They tell us at reunions how meaningful and, in some cases, life-changing that experience was.”

Where will the debate itself be held?

The debate will be held Sunday, Oct. 9 at 8 p.m. at the Washington University Athletic Complex, the same venue as its previous debates. The Gary M. Sumers Recreation Center, completed earlier this year, will also host the Commission on Presidential Debates and members of the media.

September 17, 2016 - Media Center banners go up and carpet is installed, Washington University in St. Louis
Credit Washington University | Flickr

Who organizes this thing? Who calls the shots?

It’s changed a little bit since that first debate in 1992, which was organized in under a week after another university fell through as the host.

Now, on the university end, there are 50 people on the organizational board, which is led by Givens himself. “You have to go into this with a ‘whatever it takes’ attitude,” Givens said.

There are more than 1,000 people directly involved in pulling it off, though, he continued. That number includes vendors, volunteers and student groups.

The university is in charge of getting the university ready to host the debate. That means not only the debate room, but also “nearly every other usable space available in our athletic complex,” Givens said. With 2,500 to 3,000 members of the media converging on the campus to cover the debates, Washington University is also responsible for giving them spaces to work and broadcast and setting up the technology so broadcasts don’t fail.

The Commission on Presidential Debates takes over organizing when it comes to getting moderators, setting debate guidelines, the television production itself and working with candidates and campaigns to make sure they show up for the debate.

How will this debate be different from the one held on Sept. 26?

The Oct. 9 debate at Washington University will be a “town hall” format. Candidates will not stand behind podiums. Half of the questions they answer will be posed by citizen participants selected to sit at the debate. The other half will be posed by the moderator based on topics of public interest and social media. More information on the format is here.

The debate will be moderated by:

  • Martha Raddatz, Chief Global Affairs Correspondent and Co-Anchor of "This Week," ABC
  • Anderson Cooper, Anchor, CNN 

I do know that the people in the audience will be from St. Louis,” Givens said. Those people will be made up of undecided voters selected by the Gallup Organization through phone bank contact.

As for the rest of the seats available? There are 900. Some of those tickets are divvyed up by the commission: each campaign gets an equal share of tickets and the other tickets go to the commission’s VIPs and donors. After those tickets are given out, Washington University receives the remaining share, which go exclusively to students through a lottery system.

What should people expect in regard to security and traffic change-ups?

TRAFFIC CLOSURES MAP: Big Bend will be closed at about 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 8; Forsyth will be closed at about 9 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 9. They’ll both reopen by 6 a.m. Monday, Oct. 10.
Credit Mapbox, OpenStreetMap

Givens said that the university works closely with campus, city and county police alongside the Secret Service to secure the campus for candidates’ visits. This involves setting up a secured, gated perimeter around the athletic complex itself.

To get past that gate, you need a ticket or media credential. On the day of the debate, the campus, which is normally open to the community, will be closed to anyone but students, faculty and staff, who will need an I.D. on campus as well as those with a media credential.

As far as traffic closures go:

  • Big Bend will be closed at about 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 8
  • Forsyth will be closed at about 9 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 9. 
  • Both Forsyth and Big Bend will reopen by 6 a.m. Monday, Oct. 10.

Other questions?

Washington University has put together a separate website specifically about the debate itself, featuring maps, FAQs and media information. Check it out here.

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.