Wrighton: debate ‘flawless in terms of execution’

| Contributing Reporters

Drawing in more viewers than any other vice presidential debate in history, Thursday’s vice presidential debate at Washington University went off without a hitch, University Chancellor Mark Wrighton said.

The debate was the most highly watched of any political debates since the 1992 presidential debate between Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot.

A total of 69.9 million Americans tuned in to view the vice presidential debate, according to a Nielsen press release. In comparison, only 52.4 million viewers watched the first presidential debate on Sept. 26.

According to Wrighton, the University’s national recognition has increased because of the debate and its record turnout in viewers.

“You know you can’t buy this type of coverage,” Wrighton said. “I think it contributes to the overall positive reputation of Washington University. There were very notable members of the media here.”

Wrighton said that University students contributed by far the largest number of viewers watching the debate live in the debate hall.

An unexpectedly large number of students also saw the debate in person. The 2000 and 2004 presidential debates that were held at the University used a town-hall format, which offered limited seating on the floor. As a result of not using the town-hall format this time, in conjunction with the fact that both presidential campaigns released extra tickets, allowed more than 400 students to be admitted into the debate hall.

In the past, roughly 150 tickets have typically been issued to students.

Wrighton praised Rob Wild, assistant to the chancellor and chair of the Vice Presidential Debate Steering Committee, for his role in getting more tickets for students.

“Rob Wild was very effective, because the Commission on Presidential Debates didn’t want to give so-called obstructed view seats, but Rob said we could put more students in the debate hall,” Wrighton said.

According to Wrighton, many have wondered whether the enthusiasm exhibited by students on the day of the debate will translate to increased turnout at the voting booth.

“I think the estimates for voter turnout are pretty high; the opportunity to really make a difference is there. I think a positive outcome from having the debate is [that] it heightens people’s awareness as well as interest,” Wrighton said.

In addition to the crowds watching the event, 3,100 media credentials were requested for debate day, and all were granted.

“The level of media participation was extremely high,” Wrighton said. “Of course, [Alaska] Gov. [Sarah] Palin being drawn into being the vice presidential candidate for the Republican Party—a person not well known, not ever having been involved in national politics—created a huge amount of interest.”

The University stopped granting new credentials on Aug. 15, but Wrighton said that it was probably a mistake.

“In retrospect, that was not really right,” he said. “The conventions had not even been held [by Aug. 15].”

To counterbalance the early deadline, the University along with the Commission on Presidential Debates accepted additional requests for media credentials after the deadline.

According to Wrighton, the debate cost approximately $3 million in total. The University shared the weight of the financial burden with its sponsors, Emerson, Wachovia Securities and AT&T.

The exact cost of the debate, however, has not yet been calculated.

“I don’t know and we won’t know for some time. Just to begin with, we put $1.35 million in the hands of the Commission on Presidential Debates to support their expenses. And then, we have our own expenses,” Wrighton said.

Many items from the debate have appeared on eBay to be put up for sale in the past week, Wrighton said, including parking passes, press kits, lanyards and buttons.

Plans to apply for hosting a debate in 2012 are not yet underway.

“Right now, we have made no plans, but we will consider that opportunity when it comes up as I hope it will,” Wrighton said. “2012 is just around the corner.”

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