October 15, 2004
The networks are gone, the campaign signs have been put away and the war protesters have disassembled. But the buzz still lingers in Tempe and at Arizona State University now that the final presidential debate is over.
ASU and Tempe officials are congratulating themselves for pulling off a successful debate between President Bush and Sen. John Kerry that was watched by a worldwide television audience Wednesday evening, saying the exposure was virtually priceless.
"In terms of publicity, I don’t think you could conceivably design something that could match this impact," said Virgil Renzulli, ASU’s vice president of public affairs. "It’s very hard to argue this wasn’t an extremely, ex tremely successful event."
Despite competition from baseball playoffs, an estimated 51.2 million U.S. viewers tuned in to Wednesday’s debate, according to Nielsen Media Research. That’s up from 46.7 million who watched the second presidential debate between Bush and Democratic challenger Kerry on Oct. 8 at Washington University in St. Louis.
On Sept. 30, an estimated 62.5 million viewers saw the first presidential debate, held at the University of Miami near Coral Gables, Fla.
However, more than a few people grumbled about just how positive an effect the debate had.
Vic Lindoff, owner of a novelty shop in downtown Tempe, said he closed early on Wednesday because the streets were bare and his shop was empty.
"I was in the eye of a hurricane," Lindoff said. "Now I know what absolute calm is."
The lunch crowd also was down. Restaurants probably served no more than 2,000 people Wednesday, a fraction of the 12,000 to 15,000 meals served during a typical weekday afternoon, said Rod Keeling, executive director of the Downtown Tempe Community.
The debate’s cost, $2.5 million, was covered by foundations and corporate donors.
Renzulli said it was never intended to be an economic development event. The hope was ASU would get two things out of the debate: A load of reporters on campus who might do future stories, and live broadcasts from the campus to an international television audience.
"As a region, this really put us on the map," Renzulli said.
Steve Givens, assistant to the chancellor and chairman of the presidential debate steering committee at Washington University, also downplayed the financial impact of a presidential debate.
"If we were doing this for marketing reasons, we would be disappointed in the bang for our buck," Givens said.
The university certainly enjoyed being in the spotlight, Givens said, but he said he didn’t think it had any kind of long-term impact.
Washington University also hosted presidential debates in 1992 and 2000, not to enhance prestige or increase applications or donations but because they create a buzz on campus and increase political awareness, he said.
"It turns the whole campus into a political science class for about a week," Givens said.
Margot Winick, executive director of media relations at the University of Miami, said the first presidential debate in September was an opportunity for the university to showcase the excellence and diversity of its student body
More than 3,000 members of the national press converged on the campus, and the university was on the cover of more than 200 front pages of newspapers throughout the world, she said. The event also filled local hotels and restaurants for a short time, she added.
In downtown Tempe, business did pick up considerably Wednesday night after the debate ended, Keeling said. The real impact from the debate will come from the intense media coverage that will help sell Tempe to an international audience, he said.
"It was better than the Super Bowl," Keeling said.
Keeling’s office was fielding calls Thursday morning from interested business owners wanting more information about Tempe after watching the debate, he said.
George Watson, a professor at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, said he suspects there won’t be a longterm financial benefit to the university, but the publicity was wonderful and the event went off very well. It permitted a large number of students to be involved directly with the debate, and could attract potential students and faculty.
"I think it shows what we’ve already seen with the Super Bowl and the Fiesta Bowl — that ASU is a great place for major events," Watson said. "I think this one went off so smoothly that we would be looked on favorably."
Watson said one number he couldn’t quantify is how much the debate contributed to voter registration rates among students.
"If we don’t get a higher voter turnout among ASU students, I would be surprised and disappointed," Watson said.