Inside the Washington University Athletic Complex, workers have laid out a blue carpet, hung television lights, risers for major news networks, all in preparation for the second debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
Sunday’s presidential debate will be in the form of a town hall meeting, according to the Commission on Presidential Debates.
Half of the questions are planned to come from about 40 uncommitted voters from the St. Louis area, selected by the Gallup Organization, said Peter Eyre, senior adviser for the Commission on Presidential Debates. The other half of the questions will be from social media.
Moderators Anderson Cooper of CNN and Martha Raddatz of ABC will have the opportunity to follow up on questions.
“It’s a different look and feel,” Eyre said.
All this comes amid a firestorm in the presidential race. A recording of Trump talking about groping women surfaced Friday. It was made in 2005 by a television show, “Access Hollywood,” as Trump prepared to appear on a soap opera. The remarks have led to widesread condemnation, even within his party.
Beth Myers, an aide and debate adviser for Mitt Romney in 2012, told Politico: “The stakes for Sunday’s debate got much, much higher on Friday, and the degree of difficulty increased greatly as well.”
David Yepsen, the director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, said Trump’s remarks have put him in a deep hole.
“There’s nothing he can say or do to repair this kind of damage, and it will be talked about for the duration of the campaign,” Yepsen said.
Clinton is expected to seize on the remarks — early in the debate. How will Trump respond?
The debate could hurt a candidate who looks mean or hostile, Yepsen said. And the debate will be a little more unscripted for candidates, which could be riskier.
Yepsen added what will be important is how candidates answer questions, as well as “the body language, how they react to stories they hear ... how the candidates respond to the voters. Are they empathetic, conveying concern or sympathy? We will hear some voters tell some bad stories.”
“If you’re still undecided, you’re about 10 or 15 percent of the electorate,” Yepsen said. “Chances are you’re unhappy with both of the choices. What can the candidates do to deal with that? I’m not sure there’s anything, with all the negatives each these two candidates have.”
While Washington University will be awash with its own students reveling in festivities leading up to and during the debate, students elsewhere also are keenly aware of what’s going on.
“One of the things that students have asked about is, is it possible to get tickets. They feel like it’s so close, they wish they could be a part of it,” said Laurie Rice, an associate professor of political science at SIUE. This semester, Rice is teaching a class on the presidency and a freshman seminar on civic activism.
The answer on the ticket question, by the way, is “no.” Only Washington University students and staff with their identification, along with credentialed members of the press, will be allowed on campus Sunday.
In classes Rice teaches, students talk about a lot of issues. But one that often comes up is frustration over having to choose between two unpopular major party candidates in Clinton and Trump.
“They’re turning more toward independent and minor-party candidates. Others aren’t sure they want to vote, at least not for president,” Rice said.
Learning about candidates and their positions also is a topic often discussed in classes, and Rice said rabid coverage by the press of such an unconventional presidential campaign has presented challenges for students in the digital age.
“It makes it harder for people to know what’s happening and know where to go for information. I’ve heard them wrestle with when to believe things on social media, and how to check things on social media,” Rice said. “One of the things I encourage is they look at a lot of sources.”
There will be plenty of sources to choose from on Sunday. Reporters from across the globe will churn out content from a 750-seat temporary press room near the debate hall.
Secret Service agents are responsible for protecting the nominees and their families and will head security efforts on campus in the hours leading up to, and during, the debate.
Kristina Schmidt, the special agent in charge of the Secret Service’s St. Louis field office, said the agency has been hard at work for six months preparing for an assignment that covers a little over 24 hours of security on campus.
“This is a large-scale event,” Schmidt said. “When we have an event such as this, the Secret Service is responsible for everywhere these protectees go.”
That includes airports, hotels, restaurants, rest stops — basically, the agency is responsible for security for every facet of a candidate’s existence on the trail.
Schmidt would not discuss exactly how many Secret Service agents would be on campus, but she said the agency would “bring in as many as we need to bring in to get the job done.”
Secret Service agents planned to designate the debate venue a federally protected zone Saturday evening. The plan called for it to remain so until late Sunday night.
Schmidt said the St. Louis field office will be assisted on campus by other federal agencies including the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Local law enforcement elements include Washington Univeristy police, St. Louis Metropolitan Police officers, St. Louis County officers, Missouri Highway Patrol troopers and officers from nearby municipalities that have offered to assist.
On Thursday and Friday workers set up the debate hall, which is usually the basketball and volleyball fieldhouse for Washington University.
The school is spending between $4 million and $5 million to put on the event, including a $2 million fee to the Commission on Presidential Debates, said Steve Givens, associate vice chancellor of Washington Univeristy.
The school has to pump in extra air conditioning to keep things cool under all the television lights and they have to provide wifi for 2,500 to 3,000 members of the media, and workspace for the campaigns.
He said the response from students who get to see the action, maybe even watch the debate, and see all the media broadcasting from campus, makes it worth it.
“It’s about being civically engaged,” Givens said.
The News-Democrat will have live coverage of the debate at bnd.com.
The debate will be aired live on PBS, ABC, CBS, FOX, MSNBC, Fox News, CNN, and C-SPAN, among other cable news channels. NBC will be airing Sunday Night Football. Livestreams of the debate will be available on Twitter, as well as on YouTube.
The debate is scheduled to begin at 8 p.m. and will be moderated by Anderson Cooper of CNN and Martha Raddatz of ABC.
The News-Democrat will have live coverage of the debate at bnd.com.