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The Main Event: The Big Debate

By Selena Fragassi


It only happens once every four years. And when a new presidential election kicks off, it almost always begins at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire. The sprawling campus has played host to the televised first-in-the-nation primary debates the last three terms, including 2008, 2012, and now 2016. They welcomed the most recent Democratic candidates in December and the Republican hopefuls in February.

“One of the reasons I think we are attractive is that we have the New Hampshire Institute of Politics on campus, which is very active with both the local and national scenes. We bring in speakers all the time, and had almost every one of the candidates here for an event prior to the debates,” says Associate Vice President for Facilities Bill Furlong. The other big reason, he says, is familiarity. The college has enjoyed partnerships with a number of major news networks over the years, including ABC, FOX, and CNN. “We really do roll out the red carpet for networks. Because they’ve worked with us before, we know what they want and need sometimes before they even know.”

This time around, that meant anticipating the incredible demand for the debates, which became a part of one of the most notable races in American history. Unlike years past, the parties decided to oversee ticketing and nearly double the audience size. Nearly 1,000 guests were present at each event, full of registered local citizens who had been vetted by campaign managers to prevent hecklers and other disruptions. The large increase meant Furlong and his staff had to act to find a more conducive building.

“In the past, the debates have normally taken place at our Dana Center Theatre, which seats 550,” he says. “But, because of the demand, we ended up using our recreational athletic facility, the Carr Center.” In addition to the actual televised event that took place on one of the three main basketball courts, another court had to be shut down as a holding area for ABC’s stage that they left on-site from September through February. FOX crews also stuck around for an entire week during the Republican debate, delivering daily coverage from the Davison Dining Hall.

Yet another spatial issue came with the sheer number of candidates in the Republican primary debate (nine total, as opposed to three in the smaller Democratic pool). “That became challenging because they all needed green rooms and working space,” says Furlong. “We were still in session so finding all those extra areas was difficult, but we did it.”

He credits the creative brainstorming of his team for finding workable solutions for every hiccup that came along in the eight-month planning process. Even IT had to get involved to ensure the campus had the bandwidth to provide a strong signal for all the networks that would converge.

“It took a lot of our in-house people to make it happen, even the miscellaneous jobs, from grounds keeping and storm removal to parking and traffic details,” says Furlong. With a large student body still attending classes, parking on campus was rather tight so the team set up satellite parking and buses to ensure the safe transport of audience members.

Overall, though, one of the biggest concerns was security, particularly in an election cycle that had become heated early on. “We ended up with hundreds of hours of security coverage. The last thing you want to happen is something going wrong when you’re on live TV,” Furlong admits. Saint Anselm’s director of safety and security dealt directly with the Secret Service and state and local police to ensure adequate detail. “Everything went as planned, both debates went really great,” he says, furthering that one of the biggest learning moments came in understanding how to act on their feet.

“You really have to be able to react to nuances. As much as you can plan in eight months, little stuff is always missed,” he says. “But no matter who the client is, we want them to be satisfied and feel like they are seen and heard so they can remember their experience and hopefully come back.”

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Saint Anselm College
Manchester, NH
(603) 222.4280