The 2020 Presidential Debates are making their way to Michigan. President Mark Schlissel announced Oct. 11 that the University will host the third out of four total presidential general election debates in 2020. The debate will be hosted on Oct. 15, 2020 at the Crisler Center and its nearby facilities.
Public Policy junior Brett Zaslavsky is co-president of WeListen, a political organization on campus that allows students with opposing viewpoints to have tough discussions about the state of the country. When asked what his initial reaction was to the University hosting the debate, Zaslavsky said he wasn’t surprised.
“My initial instinct was that it makes a lot of sense,” Zaslavsky said. “I completely understand why the commissioner of our presidential debates would choose the University of Michigan and Ann Arbor as a site of one of the debates. I was ecstatic as well.”
Zaslavsky has always been engaged and passionate about public policy and thinks the opportunity is a good chance for the University to show off its intellectual diversity.
“It’s a really special thing because I think we’re at a (political) turning point right now,” Zaslavsky said. “For this University and for Ann Arbor, Michigan to play a role in that… I think it’s a really special privilege.”
According to USA Today, the three locations chosen for the presidential general debates are in counties that voted Democratic in the 2016 election, despite their states voting majority Republican. During the 2016 election, Michigan was one of a handful of states that determined the election result by a small margin, with initial results saying Michigan was too close to count on election night. Through efforts like the Big Ten Voting Challenge, students on campus turned out in much higher numbers for the 2018 midterm elections than they did in the 2016 presidential election.
History of Presidential Visits
Though the University has never submitted an application to the Commission on Presidential Debates to host a debate before, 13 U. S. presidents have visited Ann Arbor’s campus in its history. On Oct. 14, 1960, President John F. Kennedy stood on the steps of the Michigan Union to announce his idea for the Peace Corps and famously referred to Harvard University as “the Michigan of the East.” President Gerald Ford graduated from the University in 1935, and the school of public policy was named after him in 1999. President Barack Obama served as the 2010 Spring commencement speaker at U-M, where he addressed a crowd of over 80,000.
History professor Matthew Lassiter said presidential debates may draw attention to the University temporarily, but historic efforts students have made to bring political activism to campus prove more impactful than just hosting a debate.
“The most important impact of the previous events where presidents used the University of Michigan as a forum was (part of) a larger narrative about a politically active campus, but it was students and faculty and activism that created that, not the presidential announcements themselves,” Lassiter said. “Presidential debates are so scripted and staged that they’re not really the place that history is going to be made. It’s just about positioning for an election, and a commencement address or something of that nature is probably more likely to be historically consequential.”
Safety & well-being
Ben Gerstein, Public Policy junior and Central Student Government President, said CSG is working with various groups on campus like the Trotter Multicultural Center, the Office of Student Life and the Michigan in Washington program to ensure the safety and comfort for students and faculty on campus. Gerstein said campus entities have been delegated different tasks, and he is working with Dean of Students Laura Blake Jones on the student engagement portion of debate planning.
“Our main piece is to focus on student engagement… that’s going to be facilitating voter registration around the debate, looking at different ways to have programming around the debate,” Gerstein said. “One of the primary things I’m going to be working on is making sure that what the climate of the debate and the 2020 election cycle will bring to campus, that all students are served and feel comfortable and have a space where they want to engage with the debate or disengage with the debate, and who are nervous about potentially some of the candidates who will come to campus.”
Political science professor and Michigan in Washington director Jenna Bednar is also a member of the core committee tasked with organizing the debate. In an email interview with The Daily, she wrote that she is excited that the University gets to host one of the debates.
“Hosting the presidential debate gives the University of Michigan community a chance to celebrate and act upon our core values of free speech and diversity,” Bednar wrote. “With events across campus throughout the semester, we can highlight how a robust democracy depends upon an educated, informed, and politically engaged community of citizens and residents.”
The College Democrats at the University of Michigan released a statement on Friday, explaining their excitement behind the announcement and the opportunity it will bring for students to engage with the election.
“By hosting a debate on our campus, we hope to showcase to the nation the best parts of our community… College Democrats is already working toward mobilizing students surrounding the 2020 elections, and our programming around the Debate will be another piece of this work,” the statement reads. “We hope this gives students the opportunity to engage with the election and have their voices heard on the national stage.”
The College Republicans at the University of Michigan also expressed their satisfaction with the recent announcement and the chance for the community to engage in an open political discussion.
“We are beyond excited to host the second general presidential debate,” LSA senior Maria Muzaurieta wrote in an email to The Daily. “We look forward to meaningful and fair questions that give both candidates a chance to make their case… We hope the campus community will remain committed to fostering open dialogue across the political spectrum.”
While many members of the community are excited about the news, Gerstein noted that students who wish to disengage from the debate due to feelings of marginalization or misrepresentation will also be accounted for in the planning of the event.
“I think there are a lot of students on campus who are really excited about the opportunity to engage with the piece of history in this country… there are also students who recognize and understand that the ability to engage in something like this comes from a point of privilege and there are a lot of students who have felt marginalized and targeted,” Gerstein said. “We need to look at the difference and vast array of opinions (on-campus) and take all of those into account when we formulate how students are going to interact with this as we plan it.”
The College Democrats echoed this sentiment, calling on the University to address systematic oppression and discrimination that exist in the current political system.
“We also call on our University administration and community to take this opportunity to address and dismantle the larger oppressive systems and actions that will likely surface on campus during this time,” the statement reads. “(We) hope this debate will bring a broader conversation about how we can best support each other as a campus.”
LSA senior Konrat Pekkip also mentioned that while he is excited for the debate to be held on campus, the candidates participating in the debate will create a divisive and potentially dangerous climate for minority groups on campus.
“I’m worried that the (University) administration doesn’t take into account dangers that come with hosting Donald Trump on campus, especially considering the people that he’s going to bring with him,” Pekkip said. “There’s going to be a lot of white supremacists, and homophobes, and all kinds of people on campus that could be threatening to (marginalized) students. I guess I hope that the administration actively reaches out to student groups and bodies and has a plan for how to deal with this.”
Public Policy junior Brianna Wells is a member of Students for Choice, a political organization that brings awareness to women’s reproductive rights, expressed her support for hosting a debate on campus.
“I think that overall having the debates at the University is a good thing,” Wells wrote in an email to The Daily. “I think that it provides an opportunity to draw national attention to Michigan-specific issues, similarly to the way that having the Democratic debates in Detroit drew attention to the injustices in Detroit and Flint.”
In the next few weeks, CSG will be hosting town halls along with Dean Jones and faculty involved in the debate planning process, according to Gerstein. These town halls will cover issues ranging from campus safety to volunteering opportunities for students. The first town hall meeting was held Tuesday evening in the Michigan League, and will be open to all students.