GOP Debate: Watching in a Room Full of CU Students Is a Real Education

“Ben Carson looks high as hell.”

“I bet Jeb would give me a warm kiss.”

“Ugh! Carly Fiorina’s smile is so fake.”

Such was the commentary from University of Colorado Boulder students as they watched last night’s GOP presidential debate in their student center, where hundreds packed the Glenn Miller Ballroom to see the debate on three giant screens.

There were face palms at Ben Carson’s stance on homosexuality, groans at John Kasich’s mention of overdoses during a marijuana question, and looks of glee every time Donald Trump made a duck face.

Of course, not all the students came just to poke fun at Trump’s hair. When asked why they were there, it was just as common to hear high-minded responses like, “I want to do what’s best for my country. I want to hear all the candidates. Even if a republican has the best ideas, I’d vote for them."

The crowd even included a few token conservatives who toughed out CU Boulder’s famously liberal student body, like three blonde-haired guys who sat in the front row.  “We’re in the front so I can hear the debate over the boos,” joked Chris Kohl, who wore a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag draped over a Reagan Bush ’84 shirt. Kohl said that he enjoys being challenged by his liberal peers: “But I still had to think about the flag this morning, like ‘am I going to puss out or will I go for it?’”

But no matter what part of the political spectrum students adhered to, or whether they came to watch the debate for reasons of entertainment or patriotism, there was a common consensus among all that were present:

They were angry about the lack of seats available to them inside the actual debate, which was happening a mere ten-minute walk away from their viewing party.

For all the hype, traffic, parking headaches and promises by CU administrators that hosting the GOP debate would be a memorable experience that would inspire students’ civic engagement, only 99 students were allowed to attend the actual debate in Coors Event Center. And even those students were not selected by a raffle or an essay contest, but were mostly hand-picked by teachers and administrators.

“The selection [of the students] pretty much mirrored our political process – if you know the right people and have the right connections, you got access,” said Kaitlyn Bové, a representative-at-large for the University of Colorado Student Government.

The students I talked with seemed evenly split between blaming the University, CNBC and the Republican National Committee for effectively shutting them out from attending the debate.  “It’s probably because they were scared of getting booed off stage by us,” said freshman Braden Solt.

Kieran Edstrom provided a different reason: “Our University gave up their bargaining chips early when they signed their contract with CNBC and the RNC.”  Over the past 35 days, Edstorm and a few other students organized under the movement #StudentVoicesCount to ask for more student seats at the debate, and were successful in marginally increasing the number from the original fifty reserved spots. But as it became apparent that only a handful of students would attend the debate, they teamed with a service called BeHeard! TV to stream their own independent broadcast of the day’s events.

At one point I walked by their set-up near the Student Center and saw Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley being interviewed by #StudentVoicesCount organizer Aaron Estevez-Miller.

“Maybe they’ll let me join their debate tonight,” O’Malley joked.

“Or maybe they’ll join us!” responded Estevez-Miller.

For most CU students, however, the only real opportunity to watch the debate was at the viewing party inside the Glenn Miller Ballroom. But even that event, which was co-sponsored by CNBC and the CU Student Government, was criticized by some.

A few students said it seemed like CNBC was trying to save face with the free taco dinner they provided in the Ballroom. “It’s especially ironic to have Mexican food at a Republican debate,” one laughed.

Others pointed out the event’s cheap marketing ploys. For example, below each of the seats were plastic bags containing candy and internship brochures for NBC Universal. During one commercial break, a campus recruiter for the company came on stage and asked, “Now who’s looking for a job?,” before handing out a number of gift baskets with movies and candy to students who tweeted using NBC’s hash tag.

Still, despite all the marketing, drama, jokes and controversy surrounding the day’s events, CU Boulder students were largely respectful and attentive. Even without being able to attend the actual debate, there was value in participating in CNBC's orchestrated viewing party. And as the GOP debate became more serious and substantive into its second half, the students traded fewer jokes about the candidates. One couple behind me launched into a passionate argument about social security and Medicaid.

After the debate, the students were invited to stay in the Ballroom and question a panel of Colorado GOP representatives. Most declined: They had more important things to focus on.

“Let’s go study,” said the two students nearest me. 
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Chris Walker is a freelancer and former staff writer at Westword. Before moving to the Mile High City he spent two years bicycling across Eurasia, during which he wrote feature stories for VICE, NPR, Forbes, and The Atlantic. Read more of Chris's feature work and view his portfolio here.
Contact: Chris Walker