SALT LAKE CITY — There will be a live audience at the vice presidential debate being held at the University of Utah on Oct. 7, but the number of people invited will be slashed dramatically as part of the safety precautions being taken because of COVID-19.
“This coronavirus has really thrown us a curveball. I mean, we’ve never had to go through what we’re going through now,” the co-chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates, Frank Fahrenkopf Jr., told Utah reporters Wednesday during an online news conference about the only vice presidential debate scheduled.
An estimated 100 million viewers around the world will watch the 90-minute debate between Republican Vice President Mike Pence and whoever former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, chooses as his running mate, Fahrenkopf said.
Besides the vice presidential debate, the commission is also holding three debates between President Donald Trump and Biden — on Sept. 29, at Notre Dame University in Indiana; on Oct. 15, at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, Florida; and on Oct. 22, at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee.
The Oct. 15 debate was moved to Miami after the original host, the University of Michigan, backed out in June due to coronavirus concerns, citing “the scale and complexity” of ensuring a safe and healthy fall on campus for students, faculty, staff and limited visitors, as well as state public health guidelines and advice from experts.
Fahrenkopf said precautions for the debates are being taken at the direction of the Cleveland Clinic and local health officials to make sure the candidates, audience members, crews and others “are kept as safe as humanly possible from contracting the virus.”
If health officials were to advise the commission “that we could not go forward with the debate as scheduled, we would then have to decide how we’re going to do it,” he said. But would that result in the candidates debating online? “I can’t answer at this time. I don’t visualize that happening. But who in the world knows?”
It’s unclear, Fahrenkopf said, given the circumstances surrounding the global pandemic “that all of us, not only in the United States but around the world, are dealing with, with this virus, what might happen in the next couple of months.”
For now, plans call for downsizing the audience to allow for social distancing. An average debate audience is 900 people who are invited by the candidates as well as the commission and the host site. But this year, he said the commission “is going to be very lucky if in the hall itself, there’s more than maybe 150 at most, maybe 200.”
The actual number will be determined later, Fahrenkopf said.
Limiting the audience and making other changes, such as substituting one-on-one interviews for the traditional post-debate “spin alley” where candidate surrogates crowd into the media filing room to offer their perspectives on the proceedings, shouldn’t make a difference to viewers, he said.
“We never show the audience,” Fahrenkopf said. “In fact, the audience sort of disappears for those people who are watching on television.”
Unlike the network-run primary debates where “the audiences are urged to clap and yell and scream and get involved in the campaign, we don’t allow that,” he said, although candidates do want to debate in front of their families, friends and supporters.
“They like the idea of having an audience there, not that they’re getting clapped for or anything like that,” Fahrenkopf said when asked why the commission didn’t just forgo an audience altogether. “It increases, I don’t know whether you want to call it tension, but good tension. So we felt that was the way to go.”
He said he won’t miss the way post-debate attempts to spin the results have been handled, describing it as a “mass cattle show” during the 2016 presidential debates between Trump and the Democratic nominee, former first lady and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“I don’t think it adds anything. We’ve been debating for years whether to continue ‘spin alley’ the way it’s been because we think it’s just gotten to be absurd in some cases,” Fahrenkopf said. “So this time, at least, we’re going to be able to do an experiment.”
The moderators for the Salt Lake City and other commission debates won’t be named until early September, he said, and will be responsible for determining the questions asked.
The debate is being held in Kingsbury Hall and the President’s Circle area will be fenced off and secured by the Secret Service and other law enforcement. A media tent will be set up inside the perimeter to accommodate what will be fewer reporters than at past debates, some 250. The number of student volunteers will also be limited.
“Safety has been a primary concern for us as we have been planning this event,” said Jason Perry, U. vice president of government relations and chairman of the campus’ debate steering committee. “This is a monumental effort from many, many people to make sure we can pull this off successfully.”
Perry, who is also director of the U.’s Hinckley Institute of Politics, said masks are expected to be worn and social distancing maintained within the secured area of the campus, but added, plans are “changing as circumstances change around us.”
Salt Lake City was selected to host the sole vice presidential debate last October. The Utah Debate Commission, a nonprofit, nonpartisan entity formed six years ago to stage debates in state races, had bid along with the U. to host either a presidential or vice presidential debate.
Nena Slighting, Utah Debate Commission executive director, said a debate curriculum for Utah’s K-12 students will be available, and some sort of watch parties will be held on the state’s college and university campuses. An essay contest is also planned, along with a debate watch guide published in the Deseret News and other newspapers.
“We’re really excited about engaging students all the way from St. George to Logan in this kind of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” she said. “We’re excited about our education outreach program and efforts we’re working on there.”
Just who will be onstage with Pence remains to be seen, but former state Senate minority leader Scott Howell, a key Biden supporter in Utah, said that should be announced soon. Biden, who served as President Barack Obama’s vice president for two terms, has said he will choose a woman as his running mate.
“The vice president is doing a very thoughtful, meticulous search for someone who would represent the values of the majority of our country. I don’t think it’s going to be a choice that Utahns couldn’t live with,” Howell said, adding that a woman on the ticket brings “a lot of perspective a good president would like to have.”
He said his choice would be the former first lady, Michelle Obama, but “unfortunately, I think she’s done with politics.”
Utah has never played host to a presidential — or vice presidential — debate.
In 2016, the Republican National Committee added Salt Lake City to the primary debate schedule. But the debate, set for the day before Utah’s March 22 presidential caucuses, was canceled after Trump, still competing with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and then-Ohio Gov. John Kasich for the GOP nomination, said he wouldn’t participate.