There seems to be just a little less excitement than usual surrounding Wednesday’s Republican presidential debate. It is, after all, the third of twelve debates scheduled this season, and the candidates are the same as last time, minus Scott Walker. The New York Times even hinted at the routineness of it all, its most recent debate-related headline focusing on the “familiar risks” the candidates face.
But there is some drama surrounding this upcoming event. And it has to do with the debate’s location — the University of Colorado Boulder, or CU-Boulder.
Since September, there’s been an twinge of animosity among some students who claim they were misled about what housing a presidential debate on campus would be like. They thought they would be getting an unique education in American politics, but instead, some say they’re only getting a lesson in marketing.
“The college framed [this debate] as a real chance for the students to have this meaningful political experience,” said CU-Boulder student Aaron Estevez-Miller, 21, in an interview with ThinkProgress. “In the months since then, the university and chancellor have really failed to deliver on this promise.”
The controversy goes like this: Wednesday’s debate is to be held in CU-Boulder’s 11,000-seat Coors Event Center, and students expected some seats would be open to some of the 30,000 university students. Instead, the Republican National Committee and CNBC originally made only 50 tickets available to the community — that’s including faculty, university board members, and a select few number of students. (On Monday, under pressure, the RNC increased that number to 150.) And the majority of those select few student are from majors like political science and economics, Estevez-Miller said.
The University and the RNC had justified this by noting that most of the space in the arena will be taken up by cameras and the CNBC broadcast team. This is commonplace — At the first Republican debate in Cleveland, only 4,500 attended, though the Quicken Loans Arena seats more than 20,500. But to Estevez-Miller and his group, Student Voices Count, school officials are using the debate as a marketing opportunity.
“They’re sacrificing young people’s political experiences to the arbitrarily defined benefit of media value and exposure,” he said. “People here are voting in their first presidential election — it’s important that they have a meaningful experience with American democracy, and [the college] is not leaving that impression on young people.”
Estevez-Miller does not go as far to suggest that the school or CNBC or the Republican National Committee are trying to keep students out for political reasons (he emphasizes the Student Voices Count is non-partisan). But it has been suggested by the fact that progressive politicians and groups have joined the call for more student participation. ProgressNow Colorado is calling for at least half of the seats to be made available for students, and while it doesn’t say it outright, its recent press release seems to accuse the Republican candidates of being scared of the progressive student body.
“If the GOP refuses to allow students to even attend a presidential debate on their own campus, what does that say about the candidates?” Amy Runyon-Harms of ProgressNow Colorado said in the statement.
It seems like a long shot that more seats will be made available to students before Wednesday’s event. In a Monday release, CU-Boulder Chancellor Philip P. DiStefeno said the campus would have “many related opportunities for our students, whether that’s attending a watch party, participating in a faculty-led discussion of the issues, volunteering with CNBC’s production or attending classroom presentations led by prominent journalists.”
For what it’s worth, Estevez-Miller and Student Voices Count is having its own related event on Wednesday — a livestreamed discussion and Q&A; session on politics with moderators from both progressive and conservative viewpoints. Local politicians from both sides of the aisle are scheduled to attend and be questioned. Even Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley reached out to the Student Voices Count event, Estevez-Miller said. (O’Malley’s campaign would not, however, confirm to ThinkProgress that he would be there.) Estevez-Miller said the group would love to see Republican candidates attend his discussion as well.
“It’s very easy for people across the country to assume that a liberal community like Boulder has no business receiving some of the country’s most conservative candidates,” he said. “I would simply ask those skeptics that we take the opportunity to prove them wrong. If a couple student volunteers can pull of a national movement like Student Voices Count in a couple months in a way that’s non-partisan and positive, it just goes to show that we should be expecting this from our national legislatures.”