Why it pays to host a presidential debate

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A man walks past a sign for the U.S. vice-presidential debate at Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia October 2, 2016. LREUTERS/Rick Wilking - RTSQFM8

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JUDY WOODRUFF: This week, Longwood University in rural Virginia took its turn under the hot lights of the presidential campaign. Tonight, we unpack the decision and the kind of money that goes into choosing which schools host a debate, and what remains when everyone leaves campus.

Special correspondent Roben Farzad has this week’s Making Sense, which airs every Thursday.

ROBEN FARZAD: Farmville, Virginia, has a population of just over 8,000. But that swelled this week as hordes of journalists, political operatives and security details crammed into town and onto Longwood University.

Staging a debate broadcast to 37 million viewers brings the kind of media spotlight most colleges cannot fathom. Many just can’t afford it. But past debate site hosts estimate the attention is equivalent to $45 million to $50 million of paid advertising.

TAYLOR REVELEY, President, Longwood University: Hosting one of these crucial debates is a genuinely once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

ROBEN FARZAD: Longwood President Taylor Reveley is a presidential scholar himself and the third member of his family to run a Virginia university.

The debate cost Longwood, a public institution, about $5.5 million, including $2 million paid to the Commission on Presidential Debates. He says that specially earmarked fund-raising, not student fees or scholarship funds, financed Longwood’s debate effort, adding that the buzz around the debate increased the number of alumni donors by almost 25 percent this year.

TAYLOR REVELEY: The general election season is like a Super Bowl buy, but, in reality, it’s much more than that. For our students, this is a genuinely once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see history unfold. It takes a volunteer army to pull off this kind of event. So much of the rest of the world would deeply envy to have candidates in a democracy showing up on a stage together shaking hands.

ROBEN FARZAD: This is town where a lot has happened. From colonial times to the Civil War to the civil rights movement, Farmville and Longwood University have been no strangers to history.

In 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant just up the road at Appomattox Court House. A century later, in a defining showdown of the civil rights movement, black high school students protesting segregation joined the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education.

Janet Brown heads the Commission on Presidential Debates.

JANET BROWN, Executive Director, Commission on Presidential Debates: These are historic. Each is unique. They are memorable. They give the students, as well as the university or college community, a chance to participate in something unlike anything else that they will see.

ROBEN FARZAD: Up to five dozen schools apply to hold one of these debates every general election. If you’re a winner, you pay the commission production fees and a whole lot more. This summer, Wright State pulled out of the running to host the first presidential debate, citing worries about costs and security.

In its place, Hofstra University hosted its third debate. Brown says there are returns to a school beyond the bottom line.

JANET BROWN: There are returns on reputation certainly for the school. I will tell you one that is not well-covered, and I find it fascinating. This is an example of management and leadership, in terms of the team effort that is required to put this together.

ROBEN FARZAD: Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, thought the experience of hosting the vice presidential debate in 2000 was so worthwhile that it came back for seconds in 2012. Centre College continues to benefit, according to the school spokesman Michael Strysick.

MICHAEL STRYSICK, Director of Communications, Centre College: The debate keeps on giving. A year later, two years later, if the candidates are in the news, they end up using photos from the debate that end up providing media value.

What I would caution to debate hosts is to not look for an immediate return on the investment, but perhaps to be mindful of what Ben Franklin called the eighth wonder of the world, compound interest.

ROBEN FARZAD: Assuming, of course, the candidates remember the name of your school.

GOV. MIKE PENCE (R), Vice Presidential Nominee: Thank you to Norwood University for their wonderful hospitality.

ROBEN FARZAD: Even before Pence’s flub, veteran ad executive John Adams tempered talk of return on investment, audience reach, and media impressions.

JOHN ADAMS, Advertising Executive: Longwood is not the star of the show here. Longwood is the setting. Longwood is the venue. Obviously, there’s a great deal of name awareness that gets built as a result of it. And we will see beautiful pictures of the university and so forth.

But the real test is, what does that name awareness and what does — the rub-off, positive rub-off over time?

ROBEN FARZAD: The same holds true for the potential boost to town commerce. I stopped by Uptown Coffee Cafe in Farmville and talked to owner Jason Mattox.

How do you stockpile? How do you prepare for something that’s largely unknown? What do you buy?

JASON MATTOX, Owner, Uptown Coffee Cafe: We have had our kitchen manager really prepare the back. We have got extra cheese slices. We have got extra deli meats ready. We have put a shed out back for our disposables. We ordered extra coffee beans.

Either we’re going to be really prepared and never run out, or we’re going to scrape the bottom. And I’m hoping we will scrape the bottom.

ROBEN FARZAD: Back on campus, organizers were pulling out all the stops, from voter registration, to academic lectures on the foundations of democracy, to engaging all ages in the presidential election, from preschoolers to high-schoolers from around the state, to raffling tickets to the actual debate, and a tour of the area’s civil rights landmarks.

Joy Cabarrus Speakes was one of the students who walked out of Farmville’s Moton High School. It was considered the student birthplace of America’s civil rights movement for providing a majority of the plaintiffs in the Brown v. Board of Education case. The debate put a spotlight on that history.

JOY CABARRUS SPEAKES, Former Moton High School Protestor: It’s bringing a lot of information on the civil rights movement to the nation, because a lot of people never even knew about Prince Edward County. They never knew about the story. Now it’s going to bring it front and center, you know, to the world.

SEN. TIM KAINE (D), Vice Presidential Nominee: This is a very special place.

ROBEN FARZAD: In fact, Democratic vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine made reference to that rich history at the debate.

SEN. TIM KAINE: Barbara Johns led a walkout of her high school, Moton High School. She made history by protesting school segregation.

ROBEN FARZAD: It’s that kind of civic and academic engagement that Longwood’s president hopes will keep paying dividends.

TAYLOR REVELEY: We have been in the midst of revising our core curriculum, which is a process that runs a number of years. We had been working on it for 18 months before we knew about the debate.

And now we have used the debate to essentially run pilot courses for what the new curriculum that’s really going to have citizenship as its North Star.

ROBEN FARZAD: After spending millions in two years on debate planning, Longwood is banking on the country remembering its name.

In Farmville, Virginia, I’m Roben Farzad for the “PBS NewsHour.”

GWEN IFILL: Online, we have your guide to what to watch for in the presidential debate Sunday at Washington University in Saint Louis. We will have special live coverage beginning at 9:00 p.m. Eastern.

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