Hosting 16 presidential hopefuls for a nationally televised debate takes time, construction and, yes, an element of theater.
Just ask John Heubusch, executive director of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation, which sustains the library that celebrates the late president’s legacy. As the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley prepares to host its fourth presidential debate on Sept. 16, the second on Republicans’ road to finding their 2016 nominee, perhaps no challenge is greater than constructing the debate stage.
“It’s a three-month job that takes place in 10 days,” Heubusch said. CNN, which will air the debate, picks up most of the cost associated with staging, he said.
This time around, the work includes installing scaffolding for a debate stage on the third floor of the Air Force One Pavilion, which houses the 40th president’s plane. The plane will serve as backdrop.
In devising the stage, the aim is to make the debate atmosphere “colorful, interesting and, where possible, unique,” Heubusch said. “A lot of debate is theater.”
The largest pool of candidates the library has hosted makes this debate a venture with “many moving parts,” he said.
“There’s more of everything – more candidates, more press, more interest,” Heubusch said.
In addition to crafting the debate stage, the library arranges each candidate’s mobile office, where he or she can prepare, get made up and meet with staff. Library officials also schedule each candidate’s walk-through of the debate space. Questions come up, such as whether they can take notes during the debate. Some ask about the height of the podium.
You have 16 candidates, so you have 16 different personalities to deal with and 16 different staff organizations.
John Heubusch, executive director of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation
“You have 16 candidates, so you have 16 different personalities to deal with and 16 different staff organizations,” Heubusch said.
Much like the first debate, the Sept. 16 event will include two groups. The top 10 candidates, according to public polling, will face off in prime time. The remaining six candidates, who must meet the minimum threshold of 1 percent in the polls, will begin in the late afternoon.
The museum will close the day of the debate but reopen the next day.
The last Republican primary presidential debate on Aug. 6 drew about 24 million viewers – the most watched of any televised primary debate, but increased interest does not alter the library’s role or planning, Heubusch said.
“Our job is to stage manage it appropriately,” Heubusch said.
Despite the record number of those watching the last debate, the proportion of households viewing debates has been declining for years, said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, professor of communication and director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. She said the recent debate’s high ratings are positive, but also likely due to the celebrity and unpredictability of one candidate.
Jamieson recently convened a bipartisan group of officials from past presidential campaigns to write “Democratizing the Debates,” a report aimed at improving the quality and reach of presidential debates.
“We’re concerned that as the size of the electorate increases, we need to find new ways to deliver the debates to them,” Jamieson said. “We have to find a way to incentivize them to watch debates.”
In 1960, when the first televised debates aired featuring presidential candidates John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon, about 58 percent of voting age Americans watched, the report cited. By 2012, that number had dipped to 25 percent viewing Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama debate.
Among the report’s recommendations are eliminating on-site audiences except for town halls to reduce audiences filled with donors; increasing opportunities for direct candidate exchanges; enlarging the pool of potential moderators to include print journalists, university presidents, retired judges and other experts; and expanding the role of diverse media outlets and the public to submit questions for debates.
Part of the problem is candidates “try to game the moderator,” and moderators can either create the perception of bias or show bias, Jamieson said.
Many of those voters who do watch say they like debates.
According to a Pew Research Center poll from 2012, about two-thirds, or 66 percent, of those surveyed said presidential debates were helpful in learning about the candidates.
After the Sept. 16 event, the Republican National Committee has announced at least eight more debates. CNBC will host the next one on Oct. 28 at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
But first, the Democrats will gather for their inaugural primary debate Oct. 13 in Nevada, also hosted by CNN. The Oct. 13 debate will be the first of six planned Democratic debates.
Journalist Marisa Agha is based in Southern California.