History of debates at Washington University in St. Louis

Washington University in St. Louis has hosted more debates than any other institution in history. Since 1992, the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) has asked the university to host debates in five consecutive elections.

1992 Presidential Debate, held Oct. 11

With only one week’s notice, Washington University hosted 1992’s first nationally televised three-person presidential debate on Sunday, Oct. 11. The venue was the university’s Athletic Complex, the site of the 1904 World Olympics.

The 90-minute debate featured President George Bush, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton and independent candidate Ross Perot. Moderator Jim Lehrer of the “MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour” and a panel of three journalists posed questions.

Approximately 100 million Americans and millions of others worldwide watched the debate on TV as it was telecast live from the Field House in the Athletic Complex. Some 600 people viewed the debate from inside the debate hall; of those, 250 were Washington University students.

More than 550 journalists watched the debate from a media center in the Athletic Complex. ABC-TV provided pooled audio and video for CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox, C-SPAN and PBS and offered 48 audio and 48 video feeds to affiliate stations worldwide.

Most of the Washington University debate costs were underwritten by a $500,000 gift made by Anheuser-Busch Cos. Inc. to the university to support its debate through the auspices of the Commission on Presidential Debates.

Local St. Louis corporations and Washington University students, faculty and staff made substantial in-kind contributions of their time and energy to help with many of the operational requirements. Any costs not covered by the CPD or in-kind contributions were covered by an anonymous donation to Washington University restricted for use in the debate.

1996 Presidential Debate, canceled

In 1996, Washington University again was selected as a presidential debate site, but that event was later canceled a few weeks prior when the candidates negotiated a reduction in the number of presidential debates from three to just two.

2000 Presidential Debate, held Oct. 17

In 2000, the university had nine months to prepare for the presidential debate between Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore, which was moderated by Jim Lehrer, executive editor and anchor of PBS’ “NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.”

The format of the Oct. 17, 2000, debate was a “town-hall meeting” in the university’s Field House, where the candidates sat on stools facing an audience of about 140 St. Louis-area voters. These town hall participants — undecided voters selected by the Gallup organization — asked the candidates questions.

Some 900 persons — media, dignitaries, invited guests and more than 150 Washington University students — viewed the debate from the Field House’s upper bleacher seats. Millions more worldwide watched the televised 2000 debate, in which Bush and Gore discussed for 90 minutes foreign and domestic policy issues.

2004 Presidential Debate, held Oct. 8

President George W. Bush debated Sen. John Kerry Oct. 8, 2004, during a nationally televised town-hall forum from the Field House at the Athletic Complex.

It was the second debate of three in the 2004 campaign. Charles Gibson of ABC News moderated the debate, which began at 8 p.m. Central time.

The candidates sat on stools at the north end of the Field House, while the 140 town-hall participants sat on tiered rows of seats surrounding the candidates.

Television lights bathed the stage, while the audience in the balcony sat in relative darkness. Six network television platforms had been erected at the south end of the debate hall, where the networks broadcast live before and after the debate.

Gibson had received questions from the town-hall participants before the debate, and he chose which would be asked. The candidates didn’t know what the questions would be, and the town-hall participants didn’t know if they would get to ask a question until Gibson called on them.

Seating in the debate hall was limited to the town-hall participants and some 900 guests — including 183 winners of the student ticket lottery and an additional 50 student volunteers.

The media filing center, which included “spin alley,” was set up in the Recreational Gymnasium of the Athletic Complex. The 18 rows of tables running the width of the gym had Internet access and telephones, and were accompanied by more than 50 televisions.

More than 1,500 journalists from across the globe traveled to WUSTL to cover the Oct. 8 presidential debate.

According to SBC Communications Inc. and the university, 1,600 voice and data lines and 60 DSL lines were added at the Athletic Complex; 53 miles of fiber-optic cable stretched across the Danforth Campus and 10 major power generators were used.

Much preparation work had been done since Nov. 6, 2003, when the university — along with sponsors A.G. Edwards, Bank of America, BJC HealthCare and Emerson — announced that it would host a debate.

2008 Vice Presidential Debate, scheduled for Oct. 2

The university will once again play host to a debate in the Athletic Complex Field House.

According to the Commission on Presidential Debates, the vice presidential debate — as well as the three presidential debates — will be 90 minutes long and start at 8 p.m. CDT on Oct. 2.

All the debates will be administered by a single moderator and, except for one presidential debate with a town-meeting format, the candidates will be seated at a table with the moderator. The vice presidential debate will include domestic and foreign policy issues.

A format change is being introduced in two of the presidential debates as well as the vice presidential debate. Each of those debates will be divided into eight 10-minute issue segments; the moderator will introduce each segment with an issue on which each candidate will comment, after which the moderator will facilitate further discussion of the issue, including direct exchange between the candidates, for the balance of that segment. Time will be reserved for closing statements by each of the candidates in each debate.

Paul G. Kirk Jr. and Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., co-chairmen of the non-partisan, non-profit commission, noted that this change is aimed at increasing the educational value of the general election debates.

“Our mission is to promote voter education,” they stated. “The public deserves to hear and see the candidates offer and defend their positions on the critical issues facing our country in the most thoughtful and in-depth manner that television time constraints will allow. Loosening the constraints within the ninety minutes debate will allow for more serious examination of complicated questions. This change will also open the possibility of the moderator inviting candidates to question each other. We want voters to benefit from as full an explanation of a topic as possible, and we feel certain that the candidates will welcome this change for the same reason.”