The tradition of holding presidential debates at universities is proving to be problematic in this election cycle. Last month, the University of Michigan’s president announced that the school would no longer be the site of the second debate between President Trump and Joe Biden, claiming that the “scale and complexity of the work” of preparing a safe campus in the middle of a pandemic precluded its October 15 hosting duties. The Commission on Presidential Debates announced on June 23 that the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami will throw the audience-less event instead.
On Monday, a second school dropped out: The University of Notre Dame announced that it could no longer host the first debate to be held on September 29, as the event would no longer “provide our students with a meaningful opportunity to engage in the American political process,” according to its president, Reverend John Jenkins. In its stead, the debate will move to Cleveland’s Health Education Campus, a campus run by the Cleveland Clinic and Case Western University. Holding the debate at the campus of a medical program has some obvious pandemic benefits, and the Commission on Presidential Debates has already called on the Cleveland Clinic for “health security” services. Surprisingly, Case Western has not yet called off audiences altogether for the indoor event featuring the two most important septuagenarians in the nation.
With the major events of the 2020 election ramping up next month, the campaign trail and the coronavirus are expected to collide in several high-profile ways. Though the president decided to cancel his in-person acceptance of the Republican nomination, he may hold his next rally as early as mid-August. And the debates in their revised locations aren’t guaranteed to go off without a hitch.
Miami-Dade County, where the first debate will be held, is still experiencing over 2,500 new cases per day. The third debate, to be held October 22 at Belmont University in Nashville, could be in a concerning spot as well: Tennessee’s capital was one of 11 cities last week urged by the White House Coronavirus Task Force to take “aggressive” action to counter the spread of the virus. And though Cleveland’s outbreak is largely contained at the moment, its rising test positivity also put it on the White House’s warning list.