SALT LAKE CITY — Although two of the three university campuses set to hold presidential debates this fall have now backed out of hosting due to COVID-19, a University of Utah official says the possibility of giving up October’s vice presidential debate hasn’t even been discussed.
“We have not spent a single moment talking about moving this debate somewhere else or declining to host it. We see this as an important event for the University of Utah and for the state of Utah,” said Jason Perry, U. vice president of government relations and chairman of the campus’ debate steering committee.
Perry, who also is director of the U.’s Hinckley Institute of Politics, said no one, including state legislators and other elected officials, is calling for the campus to cancel the debate, between Republican Vice President Mike Pence and whomever the presumptive Democratic nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, picks as a running mate.
“We are 100% moving forward for this debate on Oct. 7,” he said Tuesday. “We’re going to have 100 million people watching this event and showcasing the state of Utah and what’s happening here, and also what’s happening with our students from every university in the state of Utah. That’s something we see as very valuable.”
On Monday, Notre Dame University announced it had withdrawn as the host of the Sept. 29 debate between Republican President Donald Trump and Biden, saying the “necessary health precautions would have greatly diminished the educational value of hosting the debate” on the Indiana campus.
Last month, the University of Michigan said it would no longer host the Oct. 15 debate, 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 about dealing with the deadly coronavirus.
In both cases, the debates have been moved to new locations. Instead of Notre Dame, the first debate will be held at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, and the second debate will now be held at a performing arts center in Miami.
The third presidential debate, scheduled for Oct. 22, is still set for Belmont University in Nashville.
The U. held an online news conference last week with the co-chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates, Frank Fahrenkopf Jr., to point out how Utah’s first vice presidential debate will differ from those in the past as a result of safety precautions.
That includes a smaller live audience at the debate in Kingsbury Hall, and for the reduced number of news media that will be gathered in a massive tent on President’s Circle, replacing the traditional “spin alley,” where surrogates for the candidates jostle to tout how well they performed, with one-on-one interviews.
Fahrenkopf addressed the suggestion that the debate be shifted online, made by a recent U. student newspaper columnist, saying he doesn’t “visualize that happening. But who in the world knows?’ He said if health officials advised the debate couldn’t be held as planned, then a decision would be made about changing the format.
Scaling back the size of the vice presidential debate is expected to reduce the $6 million price tag for hosting by as much as $1 million, Perry said. State lawmakers had already appropriated $2.5 million toward securing the debate, and had come up with another $1.5 million in the 2020 Legislature.
That $1.5 million, however, was among the hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts made to the state’s $20 billion budget in a special session earlier this summer to make up for plummeting sales and income tax revenues due to the virus’ impact on the economy. Perry said he’s hopeful the debate remains a legislative priority.
Former Utah Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, now co-chairman of the nonprofit and nonpartisan Utah Debate Commission that bid along with the U. to host either a presidential or vice presidential debate, said it is still a worthwhile investment.
“It’s pretty straightforward,” Niederhauser said of the value of continuing to host. “It’s televised from Salt Lake City, Utah. I believe we still get it because I think there’s still a significant amount of exposure that Utah will have. It may not be as much as it otherwise would have been, but it will still feel like it’s significant.”
More importantly, he said, is the effect sticking with the debate could have on securing other events.
“We feel like there’s some huge benefits to us from hosting such an event, plus we’ll be viewed, I believe, as one who will finish what we started,” Niederhauser said. “When there’s another opportunity for maybe a presidential debate in the future, I would hope that we would be looked at as someone who followed through.”
That could be key to the effort to bring the Olympics back to Utah as soon as 2030. Salt Lake City, which successfully hosted the 2002 Winter Games, already has been selected by the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee to bid again.
Niederhauser, also part of the Olympic bid team, said being seen as not giving up “is a bonus” that underscores Utah’s “reputation of doing a great job of what we undertake to do.” He said pulling off the vice presidential debate amid the pandemic could be cited in the Olympic bid “as a feather in the cap” of the state.
Aaron Kall, director of debate at the University of Michigan, said he supports that campus’ decision not to hold a presidential debate.
“It was a great honor to host. Michigan State had hosted in the 1990s, but the University of Michigan had never hosted. So it was something that would have been great, absent coronavirus, for the university and the student body,” said Kall, who attended all three of the 2016 presidential debates.
“In person, it’s an amazing experience,” he said. “It’s a real spectacle. I mean, it’s like you have Super Bowl and then debates are the things really these days that get audiences of tens of millions of people, close to 100 million people. People descend upon the campus and it’s kind of the focal point,” including in the lead-up to the debate.
Perry said the U. still intends to make sure the vice-presidential debate is “the once-in-a-lifetime event that the state of Utah was looking to have,” even with the budget cuts and new safety measures in response to COVID-19.
As for the campuses that have chosen not to continue as debate hosts, Perry said, “You just never know all the factors that went into their decisions. Every single state is facing a different set of circumstances, and it’s impossible to second-guess their decisions.”