Washington University’s debate tonight between presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is perhaps the biggest event in St. Louis’ political calendar — but before the candidates take the stage, a huge amount of work goes on behind the scenes.
That massive undertaking is the job of the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), a non-partisan organization that decides everything from who can participate in the debates to what the stage will look like.
Students on Webster’s speech and debate team and members of the Journal staff were invited to go backstage at the debate site with Moira Kelly, a CPD organizer. Here are five things you might not know about what really happens when presidential candidates face off.
#1: The debate and the media will share space in Wash. U.’s gym
Apart from the debate stage, the two most important spots tonight will be the filing center, where hundreds of journalists gather to write stories on the debate as it happens, and spin alley, the name for the area where journalists interview commentators and campaign supporters who want to “spin” the outcome for one side or the other.
The filing center, spin alley and the debate hall are all housed in the Washington University athletic complex at the northwest end of campus. The Gary M. Sumers Recreation Center, home to the filing center and spin alley, is still under construction. Spin alley is actually the “cardio space” of the new fitness center.
#2: Gallup polls help decide who will participate in the town hall
The debate will be a town hall format. Half of the questions will come from 40 uncommitted voters from the bi-state region along with questions from voters on social media. Polling and research giant Gallup screened the local voters, but the moderators — CNN’s Anderson Cooper and ABC’s Martha Raddatz – which questions will be asked.
“They’re just regular people, they did not have to apply,” Kelly said.
#3: Every news channel uses the same cameras
If the debate footage on every network looks the same while you’re flipping channels, that’s because it is. Inside the debate hall, ABC is in control of the “pool feed.” The network will be the sole broadcaster on the set. All other networks must remain dark until the end of the official broadcast. ABC’s competition still has cameras at the ready and may take the opportunity to catch some post-broadcast commentary on the stage.
#4: The set travels with the candidates
The entire debate set is able to fit into a semi-trailer truck and reset for the next debate. The set will be carefully dissembled and placed into a truck, according to a diagram that makes sure it can fit into the tight space and no piece of it is left behind.
“It’s like Jenga,” Kelly said.
#5: The candidates and moderators do not get a script
The debate is almost teleprompter-free – only the “tails,” or beginning and end of the broadcast, are scripted copy. Apart from that, both candidates and moderators will be working with only their notes and their improvisation skills.
The candidates will be monitoring their time to answer using time-display clocks positioned near the cameras. These digital readouts replace the less accurate green-yellow-red lights once synonymous with debate events.