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Wash U back in the presidential hunt, will host 2016 debate

The area around the CNN tent was crowded before the vice presidential debate at Washington University in 2008.
Bill Smith | St. Louis Beacon file photo
The area around the CNN tent was crowded before the vice presidential debate at Washington University in 2008.

After being passed over for 2012, Washington University will once again be in the presidential spotlight as the host of yet another presidential debate – this time in 2016.

Washington University officials announced today that the campus will be the site of the Oct. 9, 2016 debate.  The university has hosted more presidential debates than any other venue.

The debate will be the second of three scheduled featuring the presidential nominees. The other debates are to be held at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, and the University of Nevada, in Las Vegas. The vice presidential debate is to be held at Longwood University in Farmville, Va.

Washington University was the host for presidential debates in 1992, 2000 and 2004 – and was supposed to hold a 1996 debate, which was scuttled in a scheduling fight between then-President Bill Clinton and GOP nominee Bob Dole.

For 2008, the university was awarded the vice presidential debate – which that year ended up being the marquee event because of GOP running mate Sarah Palin, who faced off against Democrat Joe Biden. The university says 73 million TV viewers watched that event, which set a record for a vice-presidential debate.

Washington University Chancellor Mark Wrighton shows off the debate hastag on a hat as he announces his schools sixth selection
Credit Joe Angeles | Washington University
Washington University Chancellor Mark Wrighton's hat shows off the debate hastag as he announces his school's sixth selection,

Washington University Chancellor Mark Wrighton made clear Wednesday that he's pleased the Commission on Presidential Debates has once again turned to St. Louis, and his campus.

"They quite obviously have confidence in us," Wrighton said at a news conference.

And he views Washington University's selection was yet another coup. "The eyes of the world will be upon us,'' Wrighton said, noting that 2016 will mark the election of a new president to replace President Barack Obama.

As in previous years, Wrighton said that the bulk of the university's allotment of tickets will go to its students.

“We know that having a presidential debate on our campus will be a memorable experience for our students and other members of the university community as they become involved in the planning and educational programming around this national event,” Wrighton said.

“It will also be a great opportunity to highlight the St. Louis region, as people around the globe are watching the nation’s electoral process in action.”

Debates take time and money

In 1992, the university had to host the first presidential debate with only a week's notice. The process has improved over the years. This time, Washington University has over a year to plan.

Among other things, the university also had to demonstrate to the commission that it had the financial resources to cover the costs. 

For the earlier debates, Anheuser-Busch was a major benefactor.  That's no longer the case since its merger with European brewer InBev, but other area corporations and political donors have stepped up privately to help cover the considerable financial costs.

Missouri Republican Party chairman John Hancock said that Washington University's repeated selection also demonstrates that the university has been a great debate host.

"St. Louis and Washington University have done such a spectacular job time and time again,'' Hancock said. "This is a reward for all those past great efforts."

Here's a few of the highlights of those earlier debates, as recalled by the university's archives and old news reports:

1992: About 100 million people are believed to have watched that debate on Oct. 11, held in the university's athletics complex (which has continued to be part of the debate site ever since). The candidates were Republican incumbent George Bush, Democrat Bill Clinton and independent Ross Perot.

2000: The debate on Oct. 17 between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore featured a "town hall'' format, which members of the audience asking questions. The event, their second meeting, was overshadowed by the airplane crash the night before that killed then-Gov. Mel Carnahan, his son and a top aide.

2004: The town-hall format was used once again for the second debate between then-incumbent Bush and Democratic challenger John Kerry. More than 1,500 journalists covered the event. A number of cable TV shows set up temporary stage sets on the campus grounds.

2008: The number of reporters swelled to over 3,100 for the Palin-Biden debate, which was hosted by PBS' Gwen Ifill.

Reporter Tim Lloyd contributed to this article.

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.