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Election Sweepstakes: VP Debate Host Competes for Media Attention

The process of getting to host a presidential debate is more competitive than the debate itself. Aside from 1992, when a billionaire spent millions to win public support, the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) has limited debate participation to two candidates, one from each of the two major political parties.

On the other hand, the choices for debate sites are numerous, although the CPD, not the American public, gets to choose which university hosts a debate. Longwood University, located in Farmville, Va., was one of the winners of the 2016 debate sweepstakes when the commission announced in 2015 that the university would serve as the site for the Oct. 4 vice-presidential debate. Once selected, a university must make an upfront payment to the commission estimated at $2 million in 2016, up substantially from about $500,000 in 2000.

Overall, Longwood University estimates it will cost $5 million to $8 million to host the Oct. 4 debate between Republican vice-presidential candidate Mike Pence and Democratic vice-presidential candidate Tim Kaine. The commission did not invite William Weld, the vice-presidential candidate for the Libertarian Party, Green Party vice-presidential candidate Ajamu Baraka, or vice-presidential candidates from any other U.S. political parties to participate in the debate.

“Longwood has been deeply engaged in planning for the vice presidential debate for nearly a year, and debate planning accounts for a major portion of the workload for numerous employees,” Sabrina Brown, associate vice president of brand marketing and university publications at Longwood University, said in an email.

The presidential and vice-presidential debates pit only a Democrat against a Republican candidate to the exclusion of candidates from other political parties in the United States. Since the CPD’s creation by the Republican and Democratic parties in 1987, the only time the commission has permitted a candidate outside the two major parties to participate occurred in 1992 with the independent candidacy of Ross Perot. The billionaire, who participated in each debate that year, ended up winning about 19% of the popular vote in the 1992 presidential election.

Applicants Abound in Debate Competition

Sixteen entities, all universities except for the city of McAllen, Texas, submitted applications to host either a presidential or vice-presidential debate in 2016. Four sites were chosen. Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., hosted the first presidential debate on Sept. 26. After Tuesday’s vice-presidential debate, Washington University in St. Louis will host the second presidential debate on Oct. 9, followed by the final presidential debate at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas on Oct. 19.

While costly for the universities, hosting a presidential debate also has its benefits. A 2012 presidential debate at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., brought free media attention worth $63 million, according to a university official. Washington University will be hosting its fifth debate this year. “We wouldn’t continue to throw our hat in the ring if it wasn’t worthwhile for us,” Steven Givens, associate vice chancellor and chief of staff at the school told the Dayton (Ohio) Daily News.

For Longwood University, the 2016 presidential election was the first time it had applied to host a debate. The university believed serving as a debate site would enhance the school’s name recognition. “[F]or a school like ours, with a compelling story — at the intersection of the Civil War and Civil Rights — and a rich history — one of the hundred oldest colleges and universities in the country, and in the nation’s oldest two-college town — that’s not as well-known as it should be, this is a launching pad to larger name recognition across the country,” Matthew McWilliams, vice president of communications and media relations for Longwood University, said in an email.

Longwood University is located Farmville, the county seat of Prince Edward County, Va., a county notorious for shutting down all of its public schools instead of being forced to integrate black and white students in the late 1950s. For five years starting in 1959 when the state of Virginia was ordered to open its schools to all children, Prince Edward County kept its entire school system closed.

During that time, most white children attended new private schools, including the Prince Edward Academy, created by segregationist leaders and funded by state tuition grants and private donations. No provision was made for educating the county’s black children. About 1,700 black and lower-income white students tried to find schooling elsewhere or stayed home.

Today, Longwood University’s student population is about 78% white and 8% African American. Formerly an all-women’s college, Longwood University went fully co-educational in 1976. Today, the student population is about 66% female and 34% male.

Longwood University is hoping the spotlight on the university will result in a greater number of student applications. “Other host sites have reported a spike in applications from students across the nation and world following their debates, and we expect something similar,” McWilliams said.

It Takes a University to Stage a Debate

The entire university has played a role in ensuring the vice-presidential debate goes off without a hitch, according to McWilliams. “Truly, everyone who works at the university, as well as every student, has had a hand in making this event a success. In roles large and small, we have all rallied around the effort to make sure Longwood puts on a debate that is unlike any other,” he said.

In late August, I worked with investigative journalist Steve Horn to learn more about the inner-workings of staging a debate at the direction of the CPD. I submitted a request to Longwood University, a public university, under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act for documents pertaining to the vice-presidential debate.

In my FOIA letter, I requested copies of the following public records:

1.) Any and all documents which mention or pertain to communications with officials affiliated with the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, the Donald Trump presidential campaign, the Democratic National Committee or the Republican National Committee relating to the planning and carrying out of the vice-presidential debate, hosted by Longwood University on October 4, 2016, set to be organized and convened by the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD).

2.) Any and all documents which mention or pertain to communications relating to the granting of press passes to members of the press for its coverage or prospective coverage of the vice-presidential debate, hosted by Longwood University on October 4, 2016, set to be organized and convened by the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD).

3.) Any and all documents which mention or pertain to communications relating to fundraising for the vice-presidential debate, hosted by Longwood University on October 4, 2016, set to be organized and convened by the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD).

In its Sept. 15 response to the FOIA request, Longwood University stated:

Below is the estimated cost of fulfilling your FOIA request to Longwood University dated 7:06 p.m., Aug. 29, 2016.

18 employees intensively involved in debate preparations and sponsorships x 2 hours each to collect documents, including emails = 36 hours at estimated hourly wage rate of $38.46 = $1,384.56.

50 employees substantially involved in debate preparations x 1 hour each to collect documents, including emails = 50 hours at average hourly wage rate of $28.84 = $1,442.

125 employees with some involvement in debate preparations x .5 hours each to collect documents, including emails = 62.5 hours at average hourly wage rate of $28.84 = $1,802.50

2 senior administrative employees x 100 hours each = 200 hours at hourly wage rate of $64.90 to review for exemptions = $12,980.

2 employees x 60 hours each to collect and oversee assembly and redaction process = 120 hours at hourly wage rate of $38.46 = $4,615.20.

Total = $22,224.26.

Separately, Longwood charges 4 cents per page for 8.5×11 copies, so there would be substantial charges associated with printing.

We would require a deposit amounting to the full estimate to begin work on this request.

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Mark Hand has reported on the energy industry for more than 25 years. He can be found on Twitter @MarkFHand.

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