UM set to host second presidential debate in October 2020

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

The University of Michigan will host the second round of presidential debates at Crisler Center on Oct. 15, 2020.

The Commission on Presidential Debates announced Ann Arbor as one of the three locations Friday alongside the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, for the first round and Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee for the third round.

Students walk through the Diag in front of the Hatcher Graduate Library on the campus of the University of Michigan campus.

The vice presidential debate will be held at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Utah.

The Oct. 15 event will largely take place on UM's athletic campus and the university plans to incorporate themes of "democracy, the election and the debate" into curricular and co-curricular activities ahead of the debate, the university said.

The Crisler Center, where the debate will take place, is where the university's basketball and gymnastics teams play. 

This will mark the second general-election presidential debate to be held in Michigan since they were first televised starting in 1960.

The first Michigan debate was Oct. 19, 1992, at the Wharton Center in East Lansing featuring then-President George H.W. Bush, then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton and Texas billionaire businessman and independent Ross Perot.

The Republican president was trailing in the polls and had his best performance in this final debate at Michigan State University before the election. But it didn't do enough to close the gap as Clinton won Michigan and the presidency. 

The 2020 debate's location at UM aligns with the university's commitment to "public service and civic engagement," UM President Mark Schlissel said in a Friday statement.

The university noted the Ann Arbor campus also has been the site of President Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society" speech and presidential candidate John F. Kennedy's address in 1960 in which he outlined his vision for the Peace Corps. 

"This is a tremendous opportunity for the university community to contribute to our democracy, while setting an example of civic engagement and shining a light on the outstanding academic strengths of our institution," Schlissel said. 

The university created a steering committee of 30 faculty, students and staff to organize the event, which is expected to create "significant costs" that UM anticipates will be paid by donors. General fund dollars will not be used, according to the university. 

The city of Ann Arbor "shares UM's awareness" of the massive technical and logistical hurdles ahead, Mayor Christopher Taylor said in a Friday statement.

"But we are confident in the expertise of our respective organizations to plan for these challenges to host this event in the upcoming election season," Taylor said. 

Since Michigan is considered a battleground state, the UM campus is an ideal location for the event, said Aaron Kall, UM's director of debate. Because Ann Arbor is further "off the beaten path" than Detroit, Grand Rapids or Lansing, security and logistics should be less challenging, he said. 

"While Ann Arbor is a relatively small sized town, the fact that the university is so large and used to hosting massive events makes it a good pick," Kall said. "It's probably long overdue.”

In the past two elections, Michigan has hosted presidential primary debates.

In March 2016, Detroit hosted the Republican presidential primary debate at the Fox Theatre a few days before President Donald Trump won the primary over U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida as well as then-Ohio Gov. Joh Kasich.

Flint hosted the Democratic presidential primary debate between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, in which they sparred about the 2009 auto bailouts and the Flint lead-contamination water crisis. Sanders narrowly defeated Clinton two days later in an upset but Clinton still won the nomination and lost to Trump by 10,704 votes in Michigan.

In November 2011, Oakland University hosted a GOP presidential debate during which then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry couldn't remember the third federal agency he would eliminate as president — the U.S. Department of Energy. Perry now runs Trump's Energy Department.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, the Dearborn Democrat whose district is home to the UM, applauded the selection of Ann Arbor for the second round of debate between the presidential contenders. 

"As one of our nation’s premier public institutions, the University of Michigan is uniquely situated to host a debate experience of the highest caliber at this critical moment in our nation’s history," Dingell said in a Friday statement.

Michigan Republican Party Chairwoman Laura Cox also welcomed holding the debate in the state.

"Today’s announcement by the Commission on Presidential Debates shows that path to the White House in 2020 clearly goes through Michigan. It is a great honor for our state to host such a pivotal event for our democracy," Cox said in a statement.

Detroit News Staff Writer Tony Paul contributed