To see how fleeting the fame of hosting a presidential debate can be, I went to Lynn University on Friday and asked a dozen amped-up students a simple question: Could they name a debate site from the last election cycle of 2008? Blank stares. Then I asked if anybody remembered the small school that hosted the vice-presidential debate earlier this month. More stares. (You can find the answers below.)
"Uhh, it's bad that I can't name any," said Jacqueline McAllister, a freshman from Long Island majoring in public relations.
"If you're not part of it, then I guess it's easy to forget about it right away," said Alyssa Jacobson, a senior from Jupiter majoring in marketing.
Bob Fisher, the president of Belmont University in Nashville – which hosted a 2008 debate – isn't offended. He said debates can give a lasting boost to the host school – in applications, fundraising and prestige – even if the average person forgets as soon as the debate is parodied on the following week's Saturday Night Live. (The other 2008 sites were the University of Mississippi, Hofstra University and Washington University in St. Louis).
"The exposure is just priceless," Fisher said. "And it really changed our mindset internally about who we were. We walked away from it saying, 'We did that??!! – we could do anything!' "
Centre College in Danville, Ky., hosted its second vice-presidential debate earlier this month, a huge logistical challenge for a school of 1,340 students in a town of 16,000.
"It sends a strong message that small places can do big things," said Michael Strysick, the school's communications director. He said Centre College has seen a steady uptick in out-of-state applicants since it hosted its first debate in 2000, and the school raised $170 million, $50 million more than its goal, in its last fundraiser.
"The debates have really helped us with visibility," Strysick said. "And as an educational experience for students, it really is amazing."
For larger and more-established schools, like the University of Miami in Coral Gables (which hosted a 2004 debate) and Washington University in St. Louis (the granddaddy of hosts, with three presidential debates and one vice-presidential debate in the past 20 years), debates can be a feather in the cap. In UM's case, the school was already famous (or infamous) for its championship football program.
But for smaller schools like Lynn, Belmont and Centre College, debates can be a quick – albeit not cheap – way to get on the political and academic map. Lynn estimates it will spend some $5 million on the debate. Fisher said Belmont spent $3.8 million on the debate, which was offset by private sponsors.
"People see this as the Super Bowl of politics, and it really is," said Fisher. "We've grown from about 5,000 students in 2008 to 6,600 today. ... There's no doubt in my mind that the debate inflected the curve upward."
Steve Givens ran the planning for presidential debates in 2000 and 2004 at Washington University in St. Louis. "The debates just create this huge buzz, this incredible energy," said Givens, associate chancellor for public affairs. "In terms of widespread economic impact on a region, it's not like hosting an All-Star Game or a World Series. But it's been phenomenal for us in terms of what it does for the campus and the kids."
Fisher said he runs into prospective students touring campus who say they first heard of Belmont from the debate. "It's helped us attract a certain type of student – those who are engaged and interested in politics and public service," he said.
Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., a commuter school that used to be best known as the site of the New York Jets training facility, has increased its visibility by playing host to presidential debates in the past two election cycles, including last week's Obama-Romeny town hall slugfest.
Givens said Lynn, with its strategic swing-state location and warm weather, might be poised to get into the regular debate rotation. "Why not?" Givens said. "A lot of people in higher education had never heard of them until this year. I'd never heard of Lynn until this year."
On Lynn's fortified campus Friday, with satellite trucks sprouting like mushrooms in the parking lots and the Boca Raton police bomb squad truck outside the debate hall, Jacqueline McAllister said, "It's going to be cool to say my school hosted a debate. On Monday, everybody will know our name. But how long will it last?"
For a small school looking to break out of the shadows, that's the $5 million question.