With the Republican convention in Cleveland next July and the first presidential debate at Wright State University in September, perhaps more presidential candidates should make it official and move to Ohio.
The Commission on Presidential Debates announced Wednesday that Wright State’s Nutter Center will host the first presidential debate on Sept. 26, 2016. Longwood University in Farmville, Va., will host the vice presidential debate Oct. 4, and the final two presidential debates will be at Washington University in St. Louis on Oct. 9 and the University of Nevada on Oct. 19.
The commission would not share details of WSU’s application, but politicos say it is indicative of the giant role Ohio has in presidential politics.
“For one, even if we didn’t have the convention coming, the governor in the race, the first primary debate and now the first presidential debate, Ohio would have been the center of the political universe in 2016,” Ohio Republican Party Chairman Matt Borges said.
The announcement was awfully big news for Wright State as well. The school was chosen from a list of 16 applicants.
“We’re extremely proud. We’re honored we can bring this to Ohio, our region and certainly to Wright State,” said David Hopkins, the university’s president. “It’s a big day at Wright State. It’s a big day for our community.”
The last time Ohio hosted a presidential debate was Oct. 28, 1980, in Cleveland when incumbent President Jimmy Carter faced off against former California Gov. Ronald Reagan, according to The American Presidency Project.
Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland hosted a vice presidential debate in 2004 between incumbent Dick Cheney and challenger John Edwards.
Although the debate will be a first for Wright State, the school has been in the national political spotlight before. It was at the Nutter Center where John McCain in 2008 announced that Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin would be his running mate. Through the years the university in Fairborn has played host to a who’s who of political heavyweights: Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Joe Biden, Colin Powell and Hillary Clinton.
Hopkins said the debate will be a chance to showcase “all the great things we have in this state. We have great people, great facilities, great capabilities … in so many ways that sometimes gets lost in bigger cities of Ohio.”
Wright State stood out to the commission, according to the university, because of the Nutter Center, the school’s diverse student body (including a high number of non-traditional students), and the fact it was the only location in Ohio to apply.
As for what it means for the 48-year-old university, Hopkins said simply, “We have arrived.”
National experts say the first debate may be especially important in 2016, given that neither candidate will be an incumbent.
“It’s a way to introduce the candidates. Most voters aren’t really plugged in until the first debate,” said Mark Caleb Smith, an associate professor of political science at Cedarville University. “It’s also the candidates’ chance to make a first impression.”
Hopkins didn’t disclose what the university will spend on the debate, but he said it will be in the millions of dollars. Also, he would not provide specifics on changes or upgrades that will be needed.
The return greatly outweighs the cost, according to officials at other schools that have hosted debates.
Officials at Centre College in Danville, Ky., say they don’t regret the more than $3 million spent on hosting the 2012 vice presidential debate.
“After the debate we had a few years of 10 to 15 percent increases in enrollment,” said Michael Strysick, spokesman for Centre College. “It inspired alumni to give more support.”
Strysick said the increased exposure attracted students from out of state and even from other countries.
About 3,000 media members covered the debate, Strysick said. And because a percentage of tickets were set aside for students, they got a rare chance to be part of a world event.
Bob Fischer, president of Belmont University in Nashville, said hosting the 2008 town hall debate between Obama and McCain was well worth the more than $1 million that it cost his school.
Belmont applied again this year but was not selected.
“It raised Belmont’s profile. Since, enrollment has grown from around 4,200 to 7,500,” Fisher said. “We have students coming from Washington state that know about Belmont because of the debate.
“Absolutely worth it,” he said. “I can’t think of anything else that would bring as much attention to Wright State.”
Fisher said the hosting a presidential debate is a “Super Bowl of sorts” for colleges.
The school brought in speakers and planned events in the year leading up to the debate and both Belmont and Centre College said they got publicity afterward that they couldn’t possibly have arranged: being featured in skits on Saturday Night Live.
Votes that matter
Local lawmakers say they did their part in landing Wright State on the short list.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said millions of Americans “will tune in to see history being made at Wright State’s Nutter Center.”
In a letter to the commission supporting Wright State’s application, Brown noted the facilities at the Nutter Center, its history of hosting big events and Ohio’s place in the presidential landscape.
“When it comes to presidential elections, all eyes turn to Ohio,” he wrote.
U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, said it’s fitting that the first debate will be in Ohio.
“Ohio’s a swing state,” he said. “Our vote always does matter.”
State Rep. Niraj Antani, R-Miami Twp., said the choice reflects on the critical role Wright State plays in the community.
“They are a great, affordable university that serves middle class students,” he said.
Staff Writer Andy Sedlak contributed to this report.