Only 100 handpicked students were granted tickets by the Republican Party to see the GOP debate in person at the Coors Event Center, but over 800 more filled the ballroom of the University Memorial Center across campus to watch the 10 Republican frontrunners spar on massive screens set up by the CU Student Government.
The lack of access was neither lost on the students in attendance nor Ryan Call, the ousted former head of the state GOP, who saw his Party’s failure to include the students as “a missed opportunity to not speak specifically to that rising generation,” something Republicans have long noted they need to do to maintain political relevance.
“The fact that we’re here and we could be 200 feet over [in the Coors Events Center] is a shame,” said junior Dylan Zuccerino.
Their exclusion was especially painfully because the GOP left 10,000 seats in the debate hall empty while the public clambered to get in.
“This kind of took over our campus, but the students were ignored,” agreed first-year graduate student Burke Larsen. “I wish that they would have let students have some more ability to get involved.”
In total, just 150 of the roughly 1,000 tickets for the debate were reserved for the CU community.
Still, many at the student government watch party saw hosting the debate as a net benefit, thanks to the spotlight shined on the university.
“Even though the ticket situation isn’t ideal obviously,” said freshman Marcus Fotenos, “the fact that [the candidates] are in Boulder and at our university is a great advertisement for Boulder.”
“This older generation say millenials aren’t involved in politics and don’t care,” he added. “We have a room of 900 people that prove differently.”
Of course, last year, CU Boulder had over 30,000 students enrolled. 900 is about 3 percent of the total.
Fotenos is a member of the CU freshman council, and he said the student government reached out to every candidate at Wednesday’s debate to request that they meet with students. Though most failed to carve out time, he said, both Carly Fiorina and the regional campaign director for John Kasich met with student representatives.
A liberal bastion like Boulder might not seem like the obvious setting for a Republican primary debate, but the crowd at the University Memorial Center demonstrated their willingness to hear out the candidates and signal their approval when appropriate.
In fact, Ted Cruz’s diatribe against biased media coverage of the Republican presidential race received some of the biggest applause at the student watch party.
“This is actually a more diverse campus than many of us give it credit for,” said graduate social psychology student Jessica Keating. In the course of her research on political behavior and attitudes, she found that a third of the CU Boulder campus identifies as Republican.
Political persuasion notwithstanding, the candidates got low marks for their discussion of the issues most pressing for CU students: student loan debt, stagnant wages, and economic inequality.
And outside of a single response from John Kasich and a Ted Cruz punchline about sharing “Colorado brownies” with CNBC moderator Carl Quintanilla, the potent issue of marijuana legalization received no serious discussion from the Republican field.
“This is where that question should have been asked,” said former U.S. Congressman Tom Tancredo in the post-debate panel. “What does each one of them think is the correct federal role in regulating [marijuana]?”
Students gave the substance of the debate mixed reviews.
The candidates “talked a lot more about policy” than in the previous two debates, said freshman Natasha Boch. “They definitely were more cohesive in their arguments than last time, where they were just shouting at each other and yelling at the moderator.”
Zuccerino was less impressed. “The format doesn’t allow for true debate or true conversation that would benefit anybody that…would call themselves a rational voter,” he said.
“These things do not give you the kind of in-depth analysis of each personality and capability that you need to make a decision,” echoed Tancredo, who had first-hand experience with the format as a losing Republican presidential candidate in 2008.
The debates would improve once the field has been winnowed down to three or four, Tancredo predicted.
“With ten people on the stage and 30 second answers, that’s why they strive so hard for one-liners.”
Photo credit: Carlo Davis