Saturday, September 24, 2016

Presidential Debates Return to Long Island By Nicholas Isaacs

Presidential Debates Return to Long Island
By Nicholas Isaacs  

On Monday, September 26th, Hofstra University will be hosting a debate between the Democratic and Republican candidates for the Presidency of the United States. I spoke with Melissa Connolly, vice president for University Relations to get and idea of what it's like for Hofstra University play host for the third straight Presidential Election season.        

Nick I: How many debates have you personally worked on at Hofstra?

Melissa C: This is my third presidential debate that I’ve personally worked on, and I also did the 2010 New York gubernatorial debate as well.

Nick I: What is it about Hofstra University that it was initially chosen, and keeps getting chosen for Presidential debates?

Melissa C: I believe that it is for two reasons, one is that we have good programs that work well with presidential politics, and that we actually have a center to study the American Presidency. And our facilities where we hold the Presidential debates works really well with what the commission for the Presidential Debates looks for. They need to build a television studio and fit hundreds of people in, and very few places actually have that. They also need space for where 1000 media employees can work in. It also has to be walking distance from their studios. We have a physical education center which can fit four basketball fields and has 10 locker rooms which provides plenty of office space.

Nick I: What role do current Hofstra students play in the the lead up and the actual event?

Melissa C: The most active things that the students do is to volunteer for different roles. They will volunteer with the media and the commission that actually runs the debate. They will help with tickets and will also promote the University. They even have programs such as lectures and comedy shows that they will see before the actual debate that will talk about the politics of this election. And then some students will get a ticket. There is a raffle, and some students will get to see the debates, and the professors and administrators and students will probably make up a third of the seats. A couple of hundred students will get into the halls and will be ticket holders. Although 7,000 put their names in the lottery, only about 300 or 400 will actually get tickets.

Nick I: What are the challenges of having such a high security event on campus?

Melissa C: You work with a lot of different levels of law enforcement and everyone has to work together really well. The Nassau County Police are responsible for the roads around the University, but not for the campus itself. The State Police are responsible for certain things, the Secret Service are responsible for certain things, and the University is responsible for certain things. During Presidential Debates it is time that people usually want to express their opinions, so people come and want to be seen, so they make sure that everyone is safe and they make sure traffic goes around them. We also have to manage who gets in and out of the site, so security, making sure that people are comfortable, and the right mix between safe and secure and your still able to the work that you need to do, whether you are a member of the media or part of the Presidential debate itself, it's a balance and we’ll be working on it until the debate ends.

Nick I: Like the recent explosions in New Jersey and New York?

Melissa C: Those will certainly be a part of the conversation.

Nick I: Has hosting Presidential debates become easier now that Hofstra has hosted several?

Melissa C: No. Each debate is different and it depends on what conversations are going on in the world, and the way you approach security tends to be different every time. It depends on what’s happening in the world and people might show up to protest, their never the same.

Nick I: Who is in charge of set design and details like what side of the stage each candidate stands on?

Melissa C: We set up the arena, but then the CPD (Commission of Presidential Debates) comes in and does the stage. And they use the same basic stage for all of their debates. It depends on whether it’s a seated debate, a podium debate, or a town hall style debate.  

Nick I: How much would it cost to pull off an event like this? After all, the debates original host, Wright State University, pulled out citing costs of over $5 million.

Melissa C: The cost the first time was $4.5 million, and I believe it may cost more the next time. But we have a lot of infrastucture still in place, so it isn’t as much as it was costing them.

Nick I: How many people can the venue seat in total? Are current students, faculty, and alumni invited?

Melissa C: I don’t know how many seats there are yet, I know we use floor seating. The debate hall is split 3 or 4 ways and each campaign gets an equal portion of the tickets, so if it was 230 for the Clinton campaign, it would be 230 for the Trump campaign. And we gave all our tickets to current students, and we don’t give any to Alumni and faculty, so that way we don’t get into arguments with Alumni and faculty over who might deserve them more. And the students are picked completely by lottery only. Then the commission gets a small portion for their board members, maybe people who moderated at another time.

I would like to thank Melissa Connolly as well as Hofstra University for speaking to me in what is obviously a very busy time.