Debates on Campus

Ashley Thorne

The presidential debates have some interesting rules, such as:

  • Other than a handshake at the start of the debates, the candidates are not to approach each other. 

Sorry, no hugs, high fives, or fist pounds allowed. Nor moonsaults, leg drops, powerbombs, or facebusters.  

  • Each candidate can use his own makeup artist.

 “No one gets my cheeks rosy like Rosie!” To our knowledge, no one has yet employed Stan Winston or Rick Baker

  • No candidate is allowed to use risers or any other device to make them look taller.

 Only Uncle Sam gets to wear stilts under his pants.

  • The candidates’ speaking order and stage positions are determined by a coin toss.

Coin-flipping has the advantage of neutrality. Certainly some sly people know how to land tails every time, but we assume that in this case the flipper is not such a wizard of physics and flips fairly.   Traditional coins from the island of Yap are generally not used. 

What about the debate sites – how are they chosen? Coin tosses, perhaps? This election year, all four debates take place at universities: University of Mississippi, Washington University, Belmont University, and Hofstra University. These sites were selected out of 16 applicants, 12 of which were colleges or universities.

The Commission on Presidential Debates selects debate sites; since its founding in 1987, the majority of presidential debates have taken place on campuses. Before CPD was around, debates were often held at public convention centers or theaters such as the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco (1976) or the Pennsylvania Hall Civic Center in Philadelphia (1984).

Debate site hopefuls who apply for the honor must submit detailed information about hotels in the area, transportation, and the dimensions of potential debate halls. Selected sites are required to provide spaces for the Secret Service and the press, to furnish “comfortable, fully padded seats with unobstructed views of the stage,” and to keep relative indoor humidity from exceeding 50%.

Apparently the places that best meet all the requirements are universities, which have large auditoria and sports arenas. And why not have the presidential debates on campuses? A university, after all, is an American symbol—of the pursuit of knowledge, of energetic youth, and…of politics. Colleges seem to be the perfect venue for the presidential debates. On campus, protests and rallies and activism and advocacy all find a home.

It has become the norm to mix politics with higher education, but the two, like oil and vinegar, only combine with a vigorous shake of the bottle. This election year, there’s been no lack of shaking—from Palin dorm shrines to chaplains offering academic credit for Obama campaigning, to essay assignments prompting freshmen to assume the professor’s politics.

Ironically, though, the political world hasn’t returned the favor: higher education has rarely been mentioned in this election. Not fazed by unrequited love, academics hurried to offer suggestions to the future president. They scurried to set up “educational” websites with election information. They scampered to win the privilege of becoming 2008 debate hosts.

At least some college students have a reason to watch the debates. They’re getting their friends together to play debate drinking games, invented by MIT students and other college-age-ish debate party throwers. They’ll drink anytime Biden says “Blue Collar, Golden Parachute, Little Guy, Washington Insider, Working Class, or Clean,” or whenever Palin says “Bush Doctrine, Snow Machine, Moose, Lipstick, Hockey Mom, or Family Values.”

Colleges are just glad to see students seriously engaging with politics. It enhances their education, right?

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