Texas A&M will bid to host presidential debate

Texas A&M University
Texas A&M University The Texas Tribune

Texas A&M University is putting the finishing touches on its bid to host a presidential debate in 2016, a move that could elevate Texas even more as a factor in the race for the White House.

The deadline is March 31 to submit applications to the Commission on Presidential Debates, the private firm that the Democratic and Republican parties have entrusted to organize the presidential and vice presidential debates during the general election.

José Luis Bermúdez, Texas A&M’s associate provost for strategic planning, said a university working group has been preparing the bid for months with the help of members of the faculty, facilities and transportation staffs, athletic department and campus security.

“A lot of people have been putting a lot of work into this,” Bermúdez said.

A debate would be a much-needed exercise in civic engagement in a state where voter turnout consistently ranks among the worst in the country. He and other officials think that goal will appeal to a commission that tends to put a premium on sites that can offer some educational value to their communities.

College Station Mayor Nancy Berry said her city and neighboring Bryan are fully behind the effort, with each of their city councils having passed resolutions in support of the application. The international attention the area stands to gain, she said, is “immeasurable and unquantifiable.”

It is an opportunity only Texas A&M appears to be taking advantage of for now in the state. No other Texas site has similarly publicized its interest in a debate, and the commission does not disclose the applications it has received.

At least two state lawmakers want to provide more of a reason for locations in Texas to apply for a debate. Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, and Rep. Angie Chen Button, R-Richardson, have authored legislation that would make general election debates eligible for the Major Events Trust Fund. Taylor’s Senate Bill 541 is the furthest along of the two, having been approved 9-1 last month by the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Economic Development.

In January, the commission issued a request for proposals that laid out specific requirements for any potential site: a debate hall that measures at least 17,000 square feet, nearby hotels that can offer a total of 3,000 rooms and accommodations for hundreds, if not thousands, of journalists.

Alan Schroeder, a journalism professor at Northeastern University who studies presidential debates, said the criteria reflect one of the commission’s top priorities.

“The main considerations are logistical,” he said. “First of all, is it a site that can support the traveling circus that goes with the presidential debates?”

Schroeder said the commission is less likely to take into account the political significance of a state, including where it falls in the nominating process and how many candidates have ties to it. That’s a relevant characteristic in Texas, which shares roots with several potential candidates, including former Gov. Rick Perry, an Aggie himself.

As a Division I school, Texas A&M is no stranger to hosting such large events, Bermúdez said. Asked whether Texas A&M faces any disadvantages in its bid for a debate, he acknowledged recent debates have gone to smaller private schools, a fact Texas A&M officials are taking into account. “But our attitude is we’re going to put our best foot forward,” Bermudez added.

Texas A&M did not apply to host presidential primary debates, which are organized by the national parties. The Republican National Committee in January announced nine debates it is sanctioning — a list that does not include any Texas venues — while the Democratic National Committee is expected to announce in the coming weeks the debates it is sponsoring.

Bermúdez said the school is determined to host a debate, regardless of whether its current application is successful.

“If that doesn’t work,” he said, “we have a great application ready to go in 2020.”