The Second Presidential Debate Was on My Campus

And it was a circus. Is anyone surprised?

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The scene in the debate hall at Washington University in St. Louis on Sunday. Photograph by Ria Han
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Nine days before the second presidential debate, I was pinning the bodice of a shirt together in one of my fashion design classes when a classmate pointed out that there were secret service agents outside of our classroom window. Another classmate observed that one of those agents was holding a cup of coffee from one of Washington University's cafes. "Do you think he's tasted it yet?" she asked. "Should I warn him?"

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A security guard plays on his phone outside the debate hall, in the days leading up to the debate. Illustration by Susan Lee

I can't be sure of what the secret service agent thought about Wash U's viscous, intensely caffeinated coffee. But I do know that the agents multiplied over the days leading up to the main event, until they finally flanked the perimeter of the Washington University campus on Sunday, checking that each person who entered the campus was indeed affiliated with the school.

"Trump's claim that no one respects women more than he does was a memorable moment of black comedy that elicited thunderous laughter from the masses in the student center."

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On Sunday night, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump stood on a bright blue and red rug that shrouded the hardwood floors of Wash U's athletic complex and answered (or deflected) questions from moderators and undecided voters for 90 minutes. 352 lucky students got to attend the face-off—winners of a ticket lottery—but most of us flocked to watch parties on various parts of campus, packed together sardine-style, cheering any time a candidate or moderator acknowledged the debate's location and booing when admissions of sexual assault were brushed off as "locker room talk."

Trump's claim that no one respects women more than he does was a memorable moment of black comedy that elicited thunderous laughter from the masses in the student center. Meanwhile, outside on the lawn, news outlets' talking heads filmed dispatches that put the debate into neat little packages, using enthusiastic students holding signs as a backdrop.

Parts of our campus were closed off for more than a week before debate day. Illustration by Francesca Maida
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According to Dr. Randy Calvert, a professor of political science I spoke to, this is the way debates normally play out on our campus. Wash U has hosted more presidential debates than any other university, so the longtime faculty see this spectacle as fairly commonplace. When asked if this year would be different than previous on-campus debates because of Donald Trump, Dr. Calvert smiled and gently dispelled my youthful notion that controversy was somehow invented during this election cycle. "The last debate we hosted was the vice presidential debate in 2008," he explained. "Sarah Palin was here. In '92 it was a three-way debate between Clinton, Bush, and Perot. It's always something."

Temporary gates separated most of campus from the debate zone. Illustration by Shannon Levin

Calvert did notice one distinct difference from past years, however—an imposing black metal fence constructed around the westernmost part of campus, encompassing the debate hall (our athletic complex) and the surrounding area. Male students living in the frat houses enclosed by the gates were subject to background checks, and some even had to move out temporarily so security officers could make use of their rooms. Dr. Calvert's colleague, Dr. Bill Lowry, added that this year felt different to him because of the Republican party's nominee. "It will be harder than usual for me to act objectively," he said.

Student protesters on campus gave speeches about a variety of human rights issues a few hours before the debate. Photograph by Megan Magray

On Thursday night, three days before the debate, I previewed the space with other members of the media. The debate set was partially in place, and the work being done to prepare the hall looked a lot like the build-out for a massive music festival, with lights, sound, and other theatrics being tested out and tweaked accordingly.

"The work being done to prepare the hall looked a lot like the build-out for a massive music festival."

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What seemed like miles of black fabric obscured green-painted walls, the occasional glimpses of which seemed out of place behind the patriotic palette of the debate decor. Two massive charcoal gray air vents dropped down from the off-white ceiling, ready to provide targeted air conditioning to the two candidates. A couple of German Shepherds in police uniforms sniffed around.

Leading up to the big event, there was a steady increase in debate-related accessories on campus for students, faculty, and debate-related visitors alike. Illustration by Francesca Maida

On Sunday afternoon, I walked my usual fifteen-minute commute from apartment to campus around 3 p.m., ready to witness the media spectacle that had been slowly building all week. The first news outlet I walked by was CNN, a huge red, white, and blue setup. Then MSNBC, then Fox News, and finally, C-SPAN. Aside from C-SPAN, all the outlets had stages set up with anchors and pundits and screaming students behind them, holding signs and banners.

"Screenshots of my peers in the background of live broadcasts littered my Facebook timeline."

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Cheering was choreographed. It felt like the closest thing our campus would ever have to an ESPN College GameDay broadcast, and students were eager to be shown on TV. Screenshots of my peers in the background of live broadcasts littered my Facebook timeline, along with photos of students posing with Wolf Blitzer, Martha Raddatz, and Anderson Cooper.

Among the festivities was a seemingly impromptu marching band performance behind the MSNBC stage. Illustration by Shannon Levin

The tactics for eliciting media attention were varied: Trump masks, flamboyantly patriotic outfits, controversial signs, and, in one instance, a bulky, fur-covered polar bear suit. An ice cream truck on campus served three flavors: red velvet, vanilla, and blue moon. Around dinnertime, there was free barbecue on campus, and students finally took a minute to sit down, some of them eating off their campaign signs like TV trays. As the start time for the debate approached, students migrated away from the news network stages toward student watch parties on campus. Those who were seeking out more media attention had the option to step into an MTV Confessional in the student center.

The scene at Wash U's Danforth University Center: one of the three on-campus watch parties for those of us who didn't win tickets. Photograph by Megan Magray

The few moments before the debate started was the first time it felt quiet that day. The lights dimmed and the student center fell silent. The broadcast began, and as soon as the chancellor stepped up to the microphone and said "Welcome to Washington University in St. Louis" the cheers and applause rose the volume in the room to its highest yet. That energy was sustained until the broadcast ended, with the mostly quiet observation occasionally punctuated by yells of approval, protest, or shock. Ninety minutes later, we all filed out, nerves shot, spirits a little deflated.

The scene in the Media Filing Room at the debate hall, one hour before show time. Illustration by Susan Lee

The next morning the campus was silent and bare, and the most important thing on my mind as I walked to class was the cup of bitter, burnt coffee I would grab on my way there.

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