The vice presidential debate in Utah will go on but feature a smaller crowd

(Doug Raflik/The Reporter via AP) Vice President Mike Pence gives a speech on Friday, July 17, 2020, at Ripon College in Ripon, Wis.

The show will go on.

But Utah’s vice presidential debate, scheduled for Oct. 7 at the University of Utah’s Kingsbury Hall, will feature a much smaller live audience than originally planned in an effort to allow for social distancing.

“This coronavirus has really thrown us a curveball,” Frank J. Fahrenkopf, co-chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates, said during a virtual briefing Wednesday.

Historically, vice presidential debates have had an average of about 900 people in the audience, he said. This time around, Fahrenkopf anticipates there will be no more than 150 to 200 people on-site — though the precautions are unlikely to impact the experience for the estimated 100 million viewers who will tune in.

“We never film the audience,” Fahrenkopf noted. “There’s no microphones out in the audience to be picked up as exists in the primary debates, so, in fact, the audience sort of disappears from those people who are watching on television.”

The 90-minute event will mark the first time a national debate will be held in the Beehive State. A Republican primary presidential debate was scheduled to take place here in 2016 but was canceled after then-candidate Donald Trump declined to participate, citing a conflicting speaking engagement and fatigue of the debate format.

Former Utah Debate Commission Chairman Thomas Wright, who vacated that position to launch an unsuccessful run for governor, estimated last year that hosting the debate will cost between $5 million and $6 million. The Utah Legislature last year provided $2.5 million toward the bid and said it might consider more next year if the state actually won.

The University of Utah is donating the use of its facilities.

Jason Perry, chairman of the U.’s Vice President Debate Steering Committee and director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics, said one of the most important elements of the debate will be student involvement, “even if it’s remotely.”

“This is an important part of the democratic process, and we are building all of this around the opportunity for students in every major to be involved — from our architecture shop to our music shop,” he said. “And our faculty are putting together programs and curriculum to help talk about these issues, the things that are going to come up, from civic dialogue to all the other aspects of having a debate.”

With less than three months to the debate, it’s still unclear who will be onstage to debate Vice President Mike Pence, President Donald Trump’s running mate.

Presumptive Democratic nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden has yet to name his vice presidential pick but is expected to do so in early August ahead of the Democratic National Convention. He has committed to selecting a woman and said Monday during an interview with MSNBC that he is considering four Black women, whom he declined to name. His short list is rumored to include California Sen. Kamala Harris, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, former National Security Adviser Susan Rice and Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth, among others.

Biden and Trump will have their own opportunity to face off at three debates the Commission on Presidential Debates will host this fall. Those are scheduled for Sept. 29 at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana; Oct. 15 at Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County in Florida; and Oct. 22 at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn. Utah is the only Western state to hold a debate leading up to November’s election.

Michigan State University was originally slated to host the Oct. 15 debate but announced last month that it had stepped back out of concern about the coronavirus outbreak’s impact on its students and staff.

Asked about safety concerns in Utah, Fahrenkopf said the Debate Commission continues to work in concert with public health officials and that he doesn’t anticipate that the event would be altered to the point where it featured just two candidates standing onstage without an audience.

“But who in the world knows under the current circumstances that all of us, not only in the United States, are dealing with, with this virus, what might happen in the next couple of months,” he said. “I’m not sure if there is an answer that could be given at this time.”