Symposium dissects debates and explores the youth vote

The podiums and backdrop that millions of Americans first saw during the Clinton-Dole debates last year were back on C-SPAN Monday when GW seniors Garrett Peel and Doug Miner took the stage to open a two-day conference at the Marvin Center.

The Commission on Presidential Debates Symposium, co-sponsored by GW, recapped and dissected the 1996 debates while looking ahead to 2000.

“The youth of America have to realize that issues affect us more than any other generation,” Miner said.

The Commission encouraged input from the student audience on techniques to appeal to young voters.

ABC News Correspondent Cokie Roberts moderated the opening session, where journalists and political experts sat side-by-side with students for a debate on the recent decline in voter turnout among young people.

University of Kansas Professor Diana Carlin said young voters think, “You know how to sell us Nikes, why can’t you figure out how to sell us politics?”

In the 1996 elections, only 18 percent of eligible voters under the age of 25 turned out to vote.

“Candidates need to focus on younger voters in the debates. They need to adapt issues to a broader audience. Social Security is not just for middle-aged and older Americans,” said Carlin, who coordinated the 1996 Debate Watch program, which polled voter reactions to the debates.

Students had the opportunity to address the panel with ideas on how to make young voters more interested in the election process.

“The last thing we need is more people over 30 deciding what the problem is with people under 30 not voting, because they really have no idea,” sophomore Katie Biber said.

Getting students involved in government even before they can legally vote was cited by the panel as another way to foster interest in politics among America’s younger voters.

GW sophomore Alexis Rice agreed. She said getting involved in political campaigns at an early age was the reason behind her excitement to vote in 1996.

“I felt it was my civic duty to vote,” said Rice. “The more you are into the system the more you want to vote.”

Other sessions emphasized the role of journalists in covering presidential campaigns and the role of debates in the general election.

CPD co-chairs Frank Fahrenkopf and Paul Kirk said the symposium is the beginning of the brainstorming process for the next presidential debates.

Janet Brown, executive director of CPD, said this was the first time the symposium was held on a college campus. The last two symposia were held at the Freedom Forum in Arlington, Va. Brown said she was very pleased with the results.

“There was good input and dialogue,” Brown said. “There were many good suggestions that the board will take into account.”

The Commission is responsible for choosing the format of the debates and the locations where they will be held.

Both Brown and Mike Freedman, GW’s director of public affairs, said they were impressed with the questions asked by GW students.

“GW students served as spokesmen for the youth of America,” Freedman said. “It casts GW in a great light.”

Freedman said he was disappointed that every seat in the theater was not filled, but commended students who attended and professors who brought their classes to the symposium.

Tuesday, the issue of debate format took center-stage in the Marvin Center Theater, as journalists and political strategists discussed ways to improve the forums.

Mike McCurry, White House press secretary, offered five “wild ideas” on how to create more interest in presidential debates and drive more voters to the polls.

McCurry’s ideas included incorporating technology into the debate process. He suggested the possibility of taking online questions from citizens during debates. He also proposed a debate focused on each candidate’s televised campaign advertisements.

Other ideas were proposed by John Buckley, senior vice president of communications for Fannie Mae, who suggested direct questioning between candidates, holding only one debate 10 days before the election and enlivening the process by not holding debates during every presidential campaign.

Sophomore Julie White and several audience members applauded Buckley’s idea of giving candidates more time to fully express their views.

“I don’t care if (President Clinton) inhaled, if he slept with 50 women. I want to know what he’s about, but that was never brought up (in the debates), because he had so little time,” White said.

Other ideas garnered from the symposium include creating a seat for a youth representative on the CPD and holding a debate geared solely toward issues that concern 20-something voters or moderated by a young person.-Matt Berger contributed to this report.

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