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Belmont University Hopes Sticking With Presidential Debate Pays Off

Sergio Martinez-Beltran | WPLN

These days, the beautiful grounds of Belmont University are noisy and busy.

Jackson Bowling, a music business freshman, noted that for the last few weeks the university’s lawns have been closed down and that tents are being set up.

“I guess it is interesting to have a different perspective on how the debates go, because usually you only see the debate actually happening and not all of the behind-the-scenes work that actually has to go in.”


Bowling says it’s weird to see all of this happening on his campus. There are trucks driving by nonstop carrying poles and tents — all to be used for what is expected to be the last debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden.

But not every student is as interested. Jada Harris, a 19-year-old fashion design major, said it’s “hilarious” that Belmont is making all of this effort for something that might not even happen.

Her snarky comment is a valid one: The second presidential debate never happened after President Trump contracted COVID-19.

Harris is concerned about the campus allowing people and activists to not wear masks. She also worries about visitors not taking the safety precautions seriously.

“Honestly at this point, I just want it to be over,” Harris said. “I’m not a big fan of being within a mile radius of a bunch of Trump supporters or people who like Biden enough to actually come see him.”

But the university sees this as an opportunity for the world to know more about Belmont. And they know this platform actually works.

In 2003, Belmont applied to be a host. But, the Commission on Presidential Debates rejected them, because the organization felt the university was not ready.

But then, the school completed the Curb Event Center. That allowed Belmont to host its first presidential debate in 2008 between then-Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain.

Bob Fisher, the university’s president, said that event brought a lot of attention to Nashville. He remembered how the newspapers as far away as India published front pages about the debate.

“I don’t know of any other way to get on the front page of those papers in New Delhi,” Fisher told WPLN News.

Since then, Belmont has continued to make itself available to host debates. But for next week’s event, Belmont is in a unique position.

The university is the only one of the original hosts that has stuck to its promise of holding a presidential debate. Two other schools — Notre Dame and the University of Michigan — dropped out due to safety concerns.

Fisher said he takes this commitment seriously because it’s a partnership with the Commission on Presidential Debates.

“And when you are somebody’s partner you support them in good times and bad times,” Fisher said. “So, we felt like at every turn, as I watched other people make their decisions — I did stop and think it through again and again but still see no reason why we wouldn’t do it.”

The final debate will be on a smaller scale than the university originally planned. There won’t be as many reporters or audience members on campus.

Still, hundreds of volunteers and employees are working hard to make it a success.

Fisher says he’s ready for anything, but he expects the candidates to be there in person. And for now, Biden and Trump are still expected to debate at Belmont University. Although in times of COVID, anything could happen.

Sergio Martínez-Beltrán is Nashville Public Radio’s political reporter. Prior to moving to Nashville, Sergio covered education for the Standard-Examiner newspaper in Ogden, Utah. He is a Puerto Rico native and his work has also appeared on NPR station WKAR, San Antonio Express-News, Inter News Service, GFR Media and WMIZ 1270 AM.
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