Hosting a General Election presidential debate is expensive, time-consuming and fraught with potential problems.
Also totally worth it, according to those who have hosted past presidential or vice-presidential debates.
“This is like the Super Bowl of politics,” said Bob Fisher, president of Belmont University in Nashville, which hosted one of the 2008 presidential debates at a cost of about $3 million. “I think everybody saw the wisdom of investing in something like this.”
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Wright State University will host the first debate of this General Election on Sept. 26 in the Nutter Center. To gauge the potential impact — both financially and intrinsically — this newspaper contacted officials at universities and colleges that have have hosted 11 presidential or vice-presidential debates since 1992.
The clear consensus was that the institutions reaped huge benefits from the national and international exposure. Hosting debates increased the stature of their institutions, gave students an invaluable experience in democracy and in some cases drove an increase in applications or fund raising, according to the interviews.
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“It’s millions and millions of (media) hits around the world,” said Melissa Connolly, vice president for university relations at Hofstra University, a private university in Hempstead, N.Y., which has hosted two debates and is the alternate for this year’s round.
“It’s nothing close to anything you would do in terms of exposure around the world for the university,” she said, “(Except) maybe winning a national title in basketball or something.”
Wright State President David Hopkins is hoping the university’s maiden foray will pay similar dividends and be so successful that the Commission on Presidential Debates will pick the school again.
“What better way to bring the world to Dayton than to host a presidential debate?” Hopkins said during an exclusive two-hour interview in his office last week. “This helps our visibility and brings more notoriety to Wright State and to the region.”
Hosting a presidential debate in 2012 brought Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., free media attention worth $63 million, according to Gregory Malfitano, senior vice president for development and administration.
Such benefits are why Washington University in St. Louis, which will host its fifth debate this fall, keeps applying.
“We wouldn’t continue to throw our hat in the ring if it wasn’t worthwhile for us,” said Steven Givens, associate vice chancellor and chief of staff at the school. “It is for the experience that we give our students of being right in the middle of something historic.”
Wright State is one of four host universities chosen this year by the the commission, a non-profit in charge of producing the General Election debates. In addition to the presidential debates at Wright State and Washington University, Longwood University in Farmville, Va., will host the vice presidential candidates on Oct. 4 and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas will host the last of the presidential debates Oct. 19.
Huge publicity accompanies any debate, but the spoof that typically follows on Saturday Night Live is public relations gold for the host university.
The SNL spoof of the October 2008 presidential debate between Barack Obama and John McCain at Belmont University has an online life that continues to this day.
“That Saturday Night Live event, we couldn’t afford to advertise there,” Fisher said. “And a lot of our (student) market, I have to say, is there. They’re watching this.”
The universities say the benefits extend beyond their schools. Hotels, restaurants and retailers all get a bump from the thousands of journalists and support staff who attend.
Lynn University estimated the 2012 economic impact at $13 million. Phil Parker, president and chief executive of the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce, said the impact of the Wright State debate could be as high as $25 million.
“If people look at the economic value, I think it is a plus,” said Parker. “It’s something we didn’t have before, so now we can get supercharged.”
Hosting debates is not cheap.
Hopkins believes the cost will be between $5 million and $6 million and said he has more than $12 million in “asks” out for funding from corporations and individuals locally, statewide and nationally.
“We are closing in on right at $2 million. We’re picking up steam there,” Hopkins said. “Individuals and corporations are stepping up and we’re working on very close to another million after that. Things are rolling now.”
University trustees in March budgeted $8 million for the effort — a figure that raised eyebrows.
“We used an upper number because we didn’t want to keep going back to our board for further approval” said Hopkins. “We don’t know exactly what the costs are going to be completely yet but that will be the upper bound of it.”
To maximize the optics when the world tunes in, the university is hoping to borrow a replica Wright Flyer to display at the debate, a deal Hopkins said could come with “a sponsorship.”
“We couldn’t think of a better way to promote the region than to have a replica of the Wright Flyer in a very important position so the world will understand: ‘Guess what, it’s not North Carolina. It’s Dayton, Ohio,” Hopkins said.
Hosts can charge the media for equipment, space and services required to cover the debate and Hopkins is estimating the university will recoup about $1 million of the cost with those chargebacks. But Hofstra’s Connolly said the chargebacks are “minimal” compared to costs.
Hopkins has been holding breakfast meetings with business executives answering their questions and emphasizing how valuable the debate will be for students and the community. He and his fundraisers are making the pitch for volunteers, sponsorships, money and in-kind contributions.
Hopkins hopes to get commitments for at least $1.5 million worth of in-kind contributions, or donations of equipment or other non-cash gifts. The state contributed $220,000 for the debate but did not fund a request for $1.6 million in capital money.
“Obviously we are hoping to get more support from the state because we have some significant security issues,” said Hopkins. “Our hope is to continue to build the case that the state should support more of what we are doing.”
‘We can’t botch this’
The Secret Service is in charge of the security in the enclosed perimeter of the debate hall, Hopkins said. But outside the fence the university will have thousands of students, media and other visitors attending watch parties and other campus activities before, during and after the event — presenting a security challenge.
Hopkins hopes the state and sister universities will join local jurisdictions to help with security.
The presidential debates are expected to pit the presumptive Democratic nominee, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, against billionaire businessman Donald J. Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee. A third party candidate who meets the debate commission’s requirements for participation could also be onstage.
Disruptions have accompanied some Trump events this year, though most have been peaceful of late.
Debate veterans say the first debate is always ripe for the best viewership, as voters want to get that first look at the contenders onstage together. More than 67 million people watched as the University of Denver hosted the first debate in 2012, according to the Nielsen rating service, and that didn’t include viewers worldwide or watching on mobile devices.
“Our social media numbers surged, increasing awareness for (the university),” said Theresa Ahrens, the university’s communications manager. “On the day of the debate our page received 1.08 million impressions (and) the debate was one of the most tweeted political events in history, with 10,300,000 tweets.”
Hopkins said debate commission officials have said this year’s first debate will be an even bigger event than usual “because of whose involved and the atmosphere.”
From the beginning, the commission stresses that the event must be glitch free.
Nobody wants to see a repeat of the 27 minutes of dead air during the 1976 debate between incumbent Republican President Gerald Ford and Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter, a loss of audio blamed on the failure of a capacitor that cost less than a dollar, according to a 2015 story by Michael Winship on the Moyers & Company website.
“We’ve never done it before so we are feeling our way,” Hopkins said. “We can’t botch this, OK. We have got to do this right.”
Year of controversy
Planning and fundraising for the debate comes as Wright State grapples with a $27.7 million operating budget deficit and the fallout of a year of controversy involving an ongoing federal investigation into H-1B visas for foreign workers and a pricey contract with consultant Ron Wine, whose contract was later suspended.
Critics have also questioned why Vice President of Planning Robert J. Sweeney is being paid $60,000 on top of his six-figure salary to plan the debate.
Hopkins hasn’t always responded quickly to criticism of university practices but said last week it is not fair to criticize the payments to Sweeney, who he said is working “day and night” doing the debate work on top of his regular job and deserves a stipend. Last year Sweeney was paid $364,432, including a portion of the debate stipend, two other stipends and a bonus.
Hopkins also said he is not responsible for emails written by Wine that strained the school’s relationship with Ohio House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger. In the emails, which were addressed to Hopkins, Wine suggested that the president offer to help host a political fundraiser for Rosenberger when the university was seeking state funding.
Hopkins said he did not take Wine’s advice on the matter.
In addition to Sweeney’s stipend, Hopkins hired two other employees on one-year contracts to do debate work at a cost of $188,000. Everyone else at Wright State will do debate work without extra compensation, he said.
“This is appropriate and I am happy that we do it this way,” Hopkins said, “This is a massive undertaking that requires a lot of coordination and oversight.”
Hopkins said he does not believe that controversy has hurt the debate fundraising effort, and as evidence he points to the university’s multi-year Rise.Shine fundraising campaign that is due to wind up in December. That campaign has raised $156 million so far, and in the fiscal year that began July 1, 2015, that effort has raised about $35 million, according to Hopkins.
The amount is the first or second highest raised by the university in its 49-year history, he said.
Debate costs start with an upfront payment to the debate commission, which Hopkins said was $2 million and is used by the commission to stage and produce the debate.
The fee has risen dramatically over the years. Givens said it was $450,000 to $500,000 when Washington University hosted the debate in 2000.
This year the university paid the commission $1.9 million, and Givens said he expects the university to spend “another couple million” to do the debate.
Longwood University estimates it will cost $5 million to $8 million and UNLV has budgeted $4 million, officials there said.
The cost to host the debate has varied at the other host universities. In 2012 Centre College in Danville, Ky., spent at least $3.3 million, the University of Denver, $3.5 million; Lynn University, $4.5 million; and Hofstra University, $5 million, according to officials there.
Technology and cybersecurity costs are big drivers of the cost. Givens remembers back in 1992 when Washington University hosted its first debate the university had to procure a bank of pay phones for reporters to call in their stories. Now universities have to haul in portable cell towers and make sometimes massive upgrades to their computer networks and technology infrastructure. Redundancy is key, with hosts adding backup power sources and duplicate computer and web networks to kick in if problems develop with front-line technology.
Debate veterans said it is essential to protect the network against hackers and a cyberattack that could disrupt the debate broadcast or keep the media from reporting on it.
“Around the world people are interested in American politics. With that many eyeballs in place it does present an attractive target,” said cybersecurity expert Seth Hamman, assistant professor of computer science at Cedarville University. “In cyberspace the security barriers are really hard to secure.”
The key for Wright State will be planning “for everything you think will happen and you also have to plan for what might be unforseen,” said Michael Strysick, director of communications at Centre College, which hosted vice presidential debates in 2000 and 2012.
Added Belmont University’s Fisher: “My advice would be don’t underestimate it. It’s going to be a big deal for Dayton. Do all that work now. And then just strap yourself in for a really fun ride.”