As I write this (October 12, 2000), we are in the middle of the presidential debates in the United States. The second debate between Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore took place October 11 in Winston-Salem, N.C. The third will take place in St. Louis, Mo., on October 17. There are varying debate formats, but each debate is a 90-minute-long question/answer session with the two candidates and Jim Lehrer posing questions as the moderator.

I had the chance to attend the debate in Winston-Salem as a member of the audience, and it was interesting! What I'd like to do in this article is tell you how the debates work when you are actually there, and compare it to the television experience.

Where the Debate Was Held
The second presidential debate was held in Wait Chapel at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. Winston-Salem is about a two-hour drive from the How Stuff Works headquarters in Cary, N.C. If you look at the photo of the university on this page, the chapel is the big building with the columns and the steeple. The chapel is pretty big inside and holds several thousand people.

Security at the Debate
If you spend any time with national public officials, you quickly discover that security is important. Here is what they did to secure the debate:

  • They built a 6-foot-high (2 m) chain-link fence perimeter around the chapel for this event.
  • There were several gates in the fence. At the gates they created a sort of tunnel lined with U.S. Secret Service agents who checked all tickets.
  • From the tunnel, you went to an area similar to an airport security checkpoint with tables and metal detectors.
  • They hand-searched all bags and led you through the detectors.
  • From there you could proceed to the chapel. They limited the audience's access to the chapel to a single doorway, where there was another throng of Secret Service agents and volunteers checking people and tickets.
Overall, the security checks took about 30 minutes from the time the bus dropped us off until we were in our seats. We had to be in our seats at 8:15 p.m. so the debates could start at 9 p.m.

The Chapel
Inside the chapel, the stage up front was surrounded by a giant, semicircular blue backdrop. On the stage was a single desk with three chairs and nothing else. Over the stage hung huge theatrical lighting grids with about 100 theatrical lights shining on the stage.

An overhead view of the stage layout for the debate, with the cameras in blue, the TelePrompTer in green and the desk in yellow. Jim Lehrer's back was to the audience. The audience sat in rows of seats shown here at the bottom of the figure.

In the backdrop behind the desk, there were two windows. Behind one window was a TV camera and a TelePrompTer that Jim Lehrer used briefly at the beginning and end of the debate. Behind the other window was another TV camera pointed at Jim Lehrer. On stage, there were two rolling TV cameras positioned in the wings. In front of the stage, there were two large fixed TV cameras like those you see at a football game. It appears that all of the TV networks take all of their video from these six cameras -- they all share the same video feeds.

Print photographers do not seem to have these same sharing relationships. There were dozens of photographers at the event. Along both sides of the auditorium were staircases leading up to the balcony and photographers were positioned on these stairs with their 3-foot-long (1 m) lenses to get close-up shots.

The Debate
About 30 minutes before the debate started, several people from the Commission on Presidential Debates came on stage to speak about the debate, audience decorum, etc. Then several representatives from the university spoke briefly. Then, moderator Jim Lehrer came on stage.

Jim Lehrer was very interesting to watch, because here you were looking at a real person, not a collection of pixels on TV. And he also was not acting in his traditional role of TV news anchor, but instead as the person in charge of the debate. He spoke about what would happen, when it would happen and what the audience's role would be (essentially the audience was told to remain completely silent during the debate -- no applause, hooting, booing, etc.). He kidded around a little -- this was a Jim Lehrer I had never seen before, and it set the tone for the rest of the evening because he made everyone feel welcome and a part of the event. He was in complete command and seemed to really enjoy the role.

Laura Bush came out and took her seat to a standing ovation. Then Tipper Gore and her family came out and took their seats to a standing ovation. Then both the candidates came out and took their seats to a standing ovation, and the debate began.

There were two things about "being at" the debate that were different from watching it on TV:

  • The two candidates become "people" rather than "characters" when you see them in person. Television has a way of mechanizing things, and then media interpretation and spin have a way of skewing things. Here at the debate, you can see that these are simply two people -- obviously important for their positions, but still just people. They make mistakes, drink water, pause to think and so on -- just like you and me.

  • You can sense the audience's reaction to things, and it is different from when you are watching at home. This is the same effect you get when you watch a movie in a theater as opposed to on TV. Even though the audience was asked to be silent (and did a good job, in fact, of maintaining silence), you could still sense reactions to different points from the group of people in the auditorium. The audience broke its silence on three occasions to laugh, and even to clap quickly when Jim Lehrer made a comment about Gore's ads. In all of these cases, the participants in the debate had broken through, become completely human and had connected with the audience as a group. That's much harder to do on TV.
After the debates, the candidates went to rallies with their supporters.

How I Was Able to Attend
Between the three presidential debates, I would guess that only about 20,000 Americans will be able to attend in person. For example, at last night's debate, Wait Chapel held only about 3,000 people. Tickets, therefore, are hard to come by.

The group that hosts the debates is the Commission on Presidential Debates, and if you look on their Web site for tickets it says:

    January 19, 2000 - The Commission on Presidential Debates will have no information regarding tickets for the upcoming presidential and vice presidential debates until late summer or early fall.
This does not make finding tickets any easier.

So a logical question is, "How did I get a ticket? How does that work?" Here is how it worked in my case:

I have been fortunate to meet a number of people in government -- office-holders and candidates, their staff and supporters, from both parties -- through How Stuff Works. People in government seem to love How Stuff Works for the same reasons that other people do, and they especially enjoy How Stuff Works because students and teachers love the site and use it in their classrooms. For example, in June of this year I was honored to be able to introduce the vice president and give a Commission on Presidential Debates - Election 2000 Debates Online!