A Backstage Look at the Presidential Debates

in The Biz

The second of three debates between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney was staged Oct. 16 at Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY. Photo courtesy of YamahaWhatever your particular ideological inclination, the presidential debates never fail to stir things up, and that was particularly true for the close 2012 campaigns backing President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. The presidential debates took place at the University of Denver on Oct. 4, Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY on Oct. 16 and Lynn University in Boca Raton, FL on Oct. 22. Additionally, the vice presidential debate took place Oct. 11 at Centre College in Danville, KY.

While some observers have contended that these events usually don’t account for much overall change in voters’ behavior, the incumbent’s lackluster showing in the first debate gave the challenger a significant boost, raising the stakes — and interest— in the debates that followed. (Even the New Yorker — which later gave a solid endorsement to Obama — featured a cartoon of Romney on its cover, addressing an empty chair.)

A Familiar Set

If the backdrop for the second debate at Hofstra University looked familiar — the medium blue backdrops inscribed with quotations from the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, a stylized American eagle symbol to one side — that’s because it’s the same set, more or less, that’s been trundled out for every one of these events since 1988, when the Commission for Presidential Debates (CPD) first took over management of these quadrennial verbal collisions.

The video of the debates has been able to capture that robins-egg blue rather accurately. I know, because I’ve been fortunate enough to have had access to the events since 2004, able to look at the set-up for each event (broadcast tends to call them “shows” but I can’t quite bring myself to use that term when there’s this much riding on them) and, this year, look over the shoulder of the FOH mixer. I can tell you that these are live events like few others.

Tight Security

The venues are chosen years in advance, and in some cases, such as with Hofstra University on Long Island, are repeat host sites — that’s because the level of security that they have to undergo is miles beyond that of any other kind of event. This was one of the few election-season occasions where both major-party candidates were present simultaneously, and Romney, like all presidential challengers once the opposition party officially anoints them, got nearly the same level of Secret Service protection as the President himself. This means that primary and alternate access routes, to and from the venue, have to be established early on, with separate access provided for each candidate. Crowd control requires that key areas, such as the debate venues themselves, be situated in such a way as to allow security forces to choke off access points and create restricted cordons around the venues. Everyone wishing access within certain perimeters inside the venue needs to be vetted well ahead of time by the Secret Service, which issues the photo laminates that indicate your level of access.

The events take place before a live audience, but in venue types that don’t generally come with broadcast connections already fitted, although the Denver event took place inside the Magness Arena ice hockey rink, which did offer some video and audio connections to the outside of the building. Setting up a hockey rink for an audience is no small task. The acoustics are not inherently conducive to speech intelligibility (although considering the number of brawls that take place at hockey games, the rink’s acoustics might have made Obama’s sedate performance there sound bigger than it really was), and required a trailer-load of drapes and carpeting to tame reflections, as well as padded folding chairs for the audience.

A Focus on Audio

Larry Estrin, the director of audio for the CPD since 1989, likes to say, “Without picture, you have radio; without audio, you have nothing.” It is essentially a verbal contest, so sound takes preeminence at these events. Like the stage backdrop scenery, the sound systems for each set of debates election to election are similar: On Stage Audio supplied clusters of JBL VRX932 speakers that were attached to the four trusses arrayed at 40-foot intervals into the seating area. EV1152 speakers were used for delayed fill speakers for the rear of the space. The same complement of Audio-Technica microphones is used, including the dual-element ES991 podium microphones attached to each of the candidates’ lecterns and the moderator’s desk, despite the fact that the ES991 is no longer manufactured. The Presidential Debates are not about having the cutting edge of AV technology on the stage — they are all about having familiar tools for the main systems.

While sound takes center stage for the debates, video is still important, and was especially critical for the second presidential match-up, at Hofstra, where the candidates were freed from their lecterns and allowed to roam the stage, letting their verbal sparring take on a third dimension. Cameras were positioned at both wings of the stage, as well as two on raised platforms about 20 feet from the lip of the stage. Another camera was positioned in the unlit slit at the center of the backdrop, focused mainly on the moderator as well as the two tiers of seated town-hall guests who had wired microphones in stands placed every two seats that they would use to direct their questions to the candidates. (Estrin took me aside on stage and showed me a trick they had learned years ago for these town-hall meetings: since microphone adapters have gone mainly to rubberized, non-slip materials, it makes them harder to easily pull out to hold in the hand; a shot of WD-40 on the holder take care of that nicely.) There was no projection video in the house at any of the debates; it simply would have distracted from the intensity and intimacy of the events.

The Presidential Debates are one of the rare events that are covered end to end by all of the major broadcast and cable news networks, and this year’s editions drew over 60 million viewers for each one. But at their core they are live events, put on for a few hundred people at a time. That contrast, between their relatively simple staging and their undeniably immense global impact, is what makes them unique. I was thankful I got a backstage look at it.