Next month, Otterbein University in Westerville will host the Democratic presidential candidates’ fourth primary debate. Preparations for the event are already under way.
Otterbein sits on an idyllic campus in a suburban enclave just north of Columbus. It’s the kind of place Democratic hopefuls want to make inroads against an unpopular incumbent president.
Hillary Clinton won the city in 2016, but narrowly. The eventual Democratic nominee will likely need to do better in the suburbs if they hope to win in an increasingly red Ohio.
The importance of communities like his isn’t lost on Otterbein president John Comerford, but he doesn’t exactly know what made co-hosts CNN and the New York Times settle on his school for the October 15 event.
“There’s a fair amount of luck involved,” Comerford says, “and it’s a bit of a mystery how exactly CNN came to us.”
Comerford says crews from the cable network are already beginning work in preparation for the debate. He says their basketball arena will be “transformed.”
“They’re bringing in new seating, a stage, it looks like a spaceship landed from outer space, and everything else you can imagine,” he says. “Our Clements recreation center will be home to, we’re told, up to 1,000 reporters who will descend upon us.”
Comerford explains Otterbein is just along for the ride, as the Democratic National Committee and CNN are leading the effort. Comerford says he is looking for ways to make the debate beneficial to students.
“I’d imagine for our communication students and those who might have careers in the press to see this level of operation on their very campus is going to be very exciting,” Comerford says.
Comerford also hopes the candidates' visit challenges preconceived notions about private higher education. He notes that Otterbein is more diverse than the state at large, and a third of students are Pell Grant eligible, meaning they come from low- to moderate-income families.
So far, 11 candidates have qualified for the debate, which may be expanded to two nights.