DebateWatch Fuels Election Interest

October 19, 2004

Katie Childress was 14 when she mentally calculated it — 2004 would be her first chance to vote in a presidential election. Now an 18-year-old senior in the Program for the Exceptionally Gifted at Mary Baldwin University, Childress is taking the responsibility seriously, and she joined close to 70 students and area residents on campus to watch and discuss the final presidential debate as part of DebateWatch 2004.

“This will be my first chance, and I want to be as informed as possible,” Childress said after the 90-minute telecast and a lively conversation about the issues and the usefulness of the debate.

More than 24,000 people in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and abroad participated in DebateWatch, a program sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates to promote viewing of the debates and collect feedback about the format. Mary Baldwin was one of four colleges in Virginia to hold an event. About 25 people — including the leaders of the local Democratic and Republican parties — stayed to share their opinions about the format after the televised question-and-answer with George W. Bush and John Kerry.

One student said watching the debates helped her establish a more personal relationship with both candidates and realize that “they are not just a donkey or an elephant” as the party symbols indicate. Listening to other participants’ comments after the debates allowed her to hear valid arguments from both camps, she added.

DebateWatch viewers around the nation and abroad rated the economy as the most useful issue addressed in the October 13 debate on domestic policy. Healthcare, education, and Social Security rounded out the top four topics, according to feedback from participating organizations to the Commission on Presidential Debates. Mary Baldwin viewers wanted to hear more about education — specifically higher education — and the environment, two of the topics also mentioned by the larger audience for not being given enough attention.

Participants at Mary Baldwin University also commented on the format of the debates. One audience member’s suggestion that alternative party candidates, such as Ralph Nader and others, should be invited to the forum got support form several people. Another participant recommended that holding shorter, more frequent debates—possibly one for each major issue—would be more effective. Some also thought the sessions should be held earlier; the debates did not end until 10:30 p.m. on the east coast.

Staunton Republican Party Chair Ray Ergenbright encouraged Mary Baldwin University to host similar events and discussions for state and local elections. “This is a great way to engage citizens and create a relationship between the college and community,” he said.

Students in the campus chapters of College Democrats and College Republicans have been busy this fall encouraging students to register to vote and make informed decisions. A registration “block party” on campus featured local House of Delegates member Chris Saxman (R-20th), and College Democrats hosted “An Alternate Viewpoint” film festival with nightly showings of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911 and other politically focused films.

Mary Baldwin’s DebateWatch was sponsored by the college and Staunton’s daily newspaper,The News Leader. For more information about DebateWatch, visit .