My time behind the scenes of the first presidential debate


Hannah Allen

Follow Hannah Allen behind the scenes of the CWRU-hosted presidential debate.

Hannah Allen, Copy Editor

With technical equipment galore, elaborate stage constructions and the watchful presence of the Secret Service, planning a presidential debate is no small feat. Even without the added struggles related to a national pandemic, this process normally requires months of advanced and detailed preparation.

The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) did it in just over six weeks. 

On July 27, the University of Notre Dame announced that, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, they would no longer be hosting the first presidential debate set for Sept. 29. In a letter from the university, President Rev. John I. Jenkins, argued that, “the inevitable reduction in student attendance in the debate hall, volunteer opportunities and ancillary educational events undermined the primary benefit of hosting—to provide our students with a meaningful opportunity to engage in the American political process.” 

Case Western Reserve University was all too willing to take up the mantle, and quickly agreed to host the debate in the Sheila and Eric Samson Pavilion at the Health Education Campus (HEC), which lies about a mile outside of the main campus.

While Notre Dame decided against providing their students with the opportunity for direct involvement in the presidential debate, the Friday night before the election, I received an urgent email offering positions to students interested in working with the CPD and the media in the coming days. 

The prospect of giving up my weekend, as well as two days worth of classes, was daunting. But I still jumped at the chance to work with the news producers that had colored my television screen for so long. 

Three Days Until the Debate

As per the email request, I showed up promptly at 8:30 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 26, to the second floor of the InterContinental Cleveland hotel, where many of the commission’s interactions with the media would occur. 

I was expecting a chaotic setup filled with frantic workers scrambling to put together an event just three days away. Instead, I was met with a pleasant hotel meeting room, filled with the coffee that I desperately needed for this early Saturday morning, as well as my managers, Shelby Sundling—the director of media—and Betsy Arseneau.

The pair quickly informed me that all volunteers would need to get an expedited COVID-19 test at the Cleveland Clinic’s W.O. Walker Center—the same place where all of the debate staff and media representatives would be tested in the coming days. After getting our tests, volunteers were to return to the hotel and not leave the area, lest we contract the disease in the hours it took to get our test results. Joined by members of Case Democrats, as well as some fellow journalism students, the excitement in the room was palpable. After waiting for a little over two hours, our results were finally in—all negative for COVID-19.

We were finally able to begin work.

Because of my past experience as a film student, I was informed early on that I would be working with Shipley Landiss, “a very busy individual who oversees the [entire] site in making sure the tech and operations are in top shape.”

A quick Google search yielded little information about the technical wizard, so I was forced to meet Shipley in person later that day. As we waited for his arrival, my fellow volunteers and I wondered what he would be like. Everyone we had met up until that point had been pleasant enough, but important people seem to rarely have the energy, or the will, to be nice—especially to the grunt volunteer who would be following them for the entire weekend. 

Instead of the rude techie that I was expecting, I was met with an older gentleman riding in a golf cart. With his tucked polo shirt and khakis, Shipley looked as if he were getting ready for his casual Saturday morning tee-time, rather than the first presidential debate of the season.

A Tennessee native, Shipley provided me with all of the southern hospitality that I had been missing from home. As we were whisked off in the cart, he detailed the general operations of the debate area, which was now being overrun by CPD workers. Lining the exterior of the HEC were trailers from all of the major networks that would be attending the debate—CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and so on. Alongside the debate area, large tents were being set up to house operations and provide a space for workers—Fox News’ tent alone stood nearly 20 feet high.

Inside the actual debate hall, there was a certain organized chaos. I was the first of the 

volunteers to visit the hall and its sheer enormity was awe-inspiring. The whirring of tools was steady in the background as I trailed after Shipley, my eyes glued to the stage. Large crates containing broadcasting cords covered the area as workers sped past mumbling about misplaced cables. 

Everyone seemed to expertly address the innumerable cameras and audio devices deliberately placed throughout the space. My few years of studying film and television were nothing compared to this. Shipley talked to each of the other technicians, and I understood about one of every four words. I wondered if I could subtly text my computer science friends for help—anything to be able to keep up with these men whose experience in the industry was longer than my time on the planet.

I felt much more in my element when we returned to the media platforms, which held a few other student volunteers—as well as Shelby and Arseneau—as the drawing was about to begin.

To allow each media team a fair chance at each platform position, the CPD hosts a randomized drawing prior to each debate. First the big channels, who were on the inside of the debate, and then the smaller ones with less pull.

These media giants’ fates rested inside of a hotel ice bucket.

In a game of news semi-bingo, Shelby would pull out the expertly cut slips of paper, each one bearing the name of a different news channel. With each name she pulled, a reporter on the Zoom call would try and gain the best position on the platform. Chants of “B9?” and “Can we have G3?” sprang from the computer. 

These are strange times we are living in. 

Two Days Until the Debate

The next day, I again acted as Shipley’s shadow. The weather that weekend was beautiful and I hopped on the golf cart with all the gusto of a kid visiting an amusement park … a complicated, nationally-divisive amusement park.

Each day that we came closer to the debate, Shipley’s phone rang more feverishly. With every call he answered, another one—sometimes two—immediately followed. At points during the day, he would have his cellphone in one hand and a portable walkie-talkie in the other hand, speaking to two separate individuals on either side of the debate hall.

My inflated ego would like to say that I was helpful during these long rides with Shipley, but I was so out of my element in terms of knowledge and abilities that it was almost impossible for me to help. I was scrambling. I was able to lift things, make copies and deliver documents, but my experience could not even begin to compare to his decades of production. 

Although Shipley’s official title was senior technical manager, he seemed to have influence in all of the debate operations. Every few minutes, we seemed to get stopped by someone waving and shouting “Shipley!” 

“These ramps are no longer ADA compliant … They still need to find the three refrigerators for concessions … The Secret Service says that these doors need to be left open at all times.” 

It was endless.

Although his attention was needed from each corner of the hall’s perimeter, Shipley did not seem fazed by the constant complications that seemed to arise. The team was, admittedly, “a little behind schedule,” but it was nothing they couldn’t handle. I was surprised to find that they were struggling with adjusting the debate to the HEC building. “The building is a beautiful building,” he said, glancing up at the structure. “But it is not great for a debate.” 

The debate hall itself was still covered with wooden boards, equipment boxes and construction machinery, but they had also brought in the guest chairs, signalling that the hall would be ready for a debate in two days. It seemed that each problem was just another fire to put out, and Shipley did so with ease. As one passerby exclaimed as we drove by on our golf car, “Shipley’s the man!” 

And after all, why should he be stressed? Shipley had successfully helped coordinate and execute the debates of Presidents Carter, Reagan, Clinton, Bush Sr., Bush Jr. and Obama—twice!. If he could handle the Oscars, he could definitely handle our little Cleveland operation. 

He and the freelance workers who joined this expedition every four years moved like clockwork, their deliberate hands expertly working to produce a livestream that would soon be shown to 73 million people. I wondered how long it took to gain these skills when Shipley asked, “Do you see very many young guys around here?” 

I didn’t. Almost every beard was speckled with white and every face had etched lines from years of worrying about audio quality or backup equipment. Debates, much like politics itself, seemed to be an old man’s game.

One Day Until the Debate

On Monday, I was informed that I would not be working with Shipley for the next two days: “He’s super busy.” I’ll admit, I was a little disappointed. Shipley was a well of knowledge and I was sad to see that it had dried up. Nevertheless, there was still work to be done to make sure that the debate ran smoothly.That day, I was assigned to stay inside of the InterContinental at the media filing center. Inside of the vast space were 100 tables arranged for social distancing, as well as 100 televisions set up before them. About half of the televisions were programmed for CNN, while the others were programmed to Fox. All of them remained silent.

My task for the day was to check in journalists arriving from all across the country and around the globe. Upon meeting them, the other workers and I were supposed to give them access to their billing and internet information, and then show them to their places within the center—unfortunately, no one was actually showing up. I arrived that day promptly at 10 a.m. and spent the next two hours chatting away with my fellow volunteers as my schoolwork lay in wait. 

The most exciting journalist I met that day was The Observer’s very own executive editor, Nathan Lesch, who had arrived from out of town the evening before. 

At about noon, I accompanied fourth-year student and Observer writer David Chang and second-year student Cameron Tong over to the HEC, where we were supposed to meet the head of security, Robert O’Donnell. We were supposed to be tasked with watching the entrances to ensure that no one entered the debate hall while they were running security tests—debate bouncers, of sorts.

While we waited for him, I played a game of guessing which of the debate staff members were Secret Service agents, or “suits” as Shipley referred to them. Some of them were exactly as you would expect—Bruce Willis types with bald heads, hulking shoulders and a prominent sidearm. Others you would sooner expect to see in CWRU’s [U]Tech department. 

I also tried to interview several of the reporters or technicians that lined the platforms, to no avail—public relations officials blocked me at my every turn. One CNN reporter did kindly reassure me, “I was just like you!” which almost eased the sting of rejection … almost.

After my rebuff, we were escorted to the front of the building where our CPD managers lay in wait. There seemed to be warring opinions on whether or not we should be there for the security tests. As they argued, we took the opportunity to peer into the debate hall to watch the comings and goings. Volunteers were no longer technically allowed inside of the hall, so we were forced to crane our necks for a peek—to the amusement of onlooking nursing staff and wary security officers. 

Inside, we could see that the large machinery that once filled the hall was now replaced by small ladders. The hulking crates that once held technical equipment had since been dispersed to their proper areas, only a few small boxes remained. Atop the stage, the blue carpet was still covered in a plastic sheen to protect its quality, and it would stay that way until tomorrow. 

Our managers eventually decided that our security services were no longer required at the HEC campus and that we could return to the hotel. On my way back, I decided to get my second required COVID-19 test. 

I left with a negative result, and the promise of more excitement the next day.

Day of the Debate

After endless hours of planning and four days of volunteer work, the day of the debate was finally here.

When I arrived at the InterContinental hotel, the excitement in the room was palpable. As Cameron Tong, vice president of the Case Democrats, described, “My experience [as] a volunteer was surreal. As a political science student who is trying to focus on domestic policy and American elections, I was thriving on what was happening right in front of me.” 

Even though the debate was still hours away, I paced anxiously in front of the media filing center before sitting down at the check-in desk. In time, journalists began to trickle in one by one—Daily Telegraph, Bloomberg News, The Washington Post. We volunteers did everything that we had been trained to do—checking in the journalists and escorting them to their designated area. After several hours, positions would switch and I would work on the inside of the room. The regulations in place for COVID-19 prevented anyone from taking off their masks inside of the room for any reason, including food or drink. 

All things considered, we were probably in one of the safest rooms in Cleveland—everyone in the media filing center had been checked at least once, if not twice, for COVID-19 within the past three days. In spite of this, I was still charged with addressing any reporters with a slipped mask or open drink. It was a strange experience, asking reporters 30 years my senior to follow the rules. But I guess with COVID, there isn’t exactly a normal anymore.

With only a few hours left until the debate, second-year economics major Beth Canel and I were finally able to visit the completed production of the debate hall. Walking in, the silence in the hall was almost unnerving after hearing days of constant work and chatter. Gray clouds loomed overhead, giving the room a serious and professional aura. The ladders, cords and other tools were a thing of the past. Atop the stage, the carpet had finally lost the plastic sheen that was keeping it clean, prior. Now, it was ready for the feet of two of the most powerful men in the world. 

Beth and I took some pictures at the demand of our respective mothers and we quickly left the area. She later commented, “It was remarkable to see how, in a few days, the HEC could be completely transferred into a debate hall.”

We returned to the hotel after our tour, swiftly moving past the dozens of gun-toting security forces that surrounded the HEC. More guards were waiting at the InterContinental as we hastened back to the media filing center. 

As we resumed our positions, journalists continued to file in. Some journalists, upon being informed that the viewing fee inside of the media center would be $500 dollars, left in indignation or bewilderment. 

One of these individuals was Nick Castele, a reporter with ideastream, a Cleveland-based multimedia public service organization. He explained that, “I’ve never covered a presidential debate before, so I wasn’t exactly sure of what to expect, especially in the pandemic.”

He continued, noting: “I totally understand that for these big networks, there are going to be expensive needs.” That being said, Castele also said that “it was a little befuddling that simply sitting in a room to watch a debate on TV would run somebody $500. That may be a small expense for a major new outlet to pay … but smaller outlets or nonprofits that rely on the contributions of their members … we want to be respectful of the investment that they gave us.”

Fortunately, Castele notes that he was able to watch the livestream in a room down the hall from the filing center and that, “It all turned out just fine.” In the end, 41 of the 100 media representatives showed up to watch the debate, which began that night at 9 p.m.

The actual debate was, put simply, a mess. Reporters and volunteers alike stared in awe as the two potential leaders of our country held a verbal spar upon the stage that I had visited only hours before. 

At one point—somewhere between Trump’s refusal to denounce white supremacy and his claim that there was going to be unprecedented polling fraud—I snorted so hard that the reporters actually turned to look at me. Needless to say, I was glad that I was not in the audience at the HEC, as I don’t think I could have survived it. The following day, it was announced that the CPD would be implementing changes in order to ensure a “more orderly discussion” for the next debate, scheduled for Oct. 15.

I’m not in a position to say whether CWRU should have or should not have held the first presidential debate of the year—if you are looking for that article, feel free to check out this week’s Opinion section of The Observer. 

But I can say for certain that the CPD provided myself, as well as a number of other CWRU students, with a unique and educational experience that we will not soon forget.