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Lights, Camera, Town Hall: Behind The Scenes At Made-For-TV Take On N.H. Tradition

CNN hosted a five-hour long broadcast featuring interviews with five Democratic presidential candidates at St. Anselm College in Manchester Monday night.

The New Hampshire Institute of Politics at St. Anselm College played host Monday night to a televised forum with a few 2020 presidential candidates: Five Democrats, over five hours, in front of 500 or so college students. NHPR’s Todd Bookman reports on how this made-for-TV take on a New Hampshire tradition came together.

CNN, for better or worse, decided that what voters needed most on a Monday in April was an evening full of live interviews with politicians. The network's promotions promised to present the candidates "on the same stage, back to back" in what it called "the first major event of the 2020 presidential campaign." 

The Wrestlemania-style tone may not have been in complete harmony with the Benedictine traditions of St. Anselm College, but so it goes. The school has long played an important role in the New Hampshire primary, and here it was again serving as the backdrop.

"It is our state sport, essentially, politics," said Neil Levesque, director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics. "And this is certainly an epic event for our state."

Harvard University’s Institute of Politics also sponsored the event. According to Levesque, it was no easy lift.

"The logistics of these things are quite complex," he said. "So you think about all the people from CNN and Harvard, all the students. That means food and water for all these people; you have to keep them all well fed. You have to have green rooms."

That's separate green rooms. It’s not like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders get their makeup done side by side. The forum's three other participants were South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, California Sen. Kamala Harris and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

Klobuchar kicked off the event, at the top of the 7 o’clock hour. Her portion was moderated by CNN’s Chris Cuomo. The first question came from John Our, a Harvard freshman from Cape Cod. He wanted to know Klobuchar's views on impeachment hearings against President Trump. 

Other questions, all from the students in the audience, ranged from student debt to climate change to the nutritional content of high school lunches. Speaking just before the event, Sam Feist, CNN’s Washington Bureau Chief, said it was important to have a younger audience asking questions that mattered to them.

"A really important demographic in the Democratic Party, and potentially, could be, a decisive demographic," said Feist.

Cassie Moran, a St. Anselm senior studying international relations, is firmly in that coveted demographic.

"People want to be heard, and they feel ignored, especially younger people, so by gearing the event towards them it is sort of ensuring that they get involved, and engaging them in the process more," Moran said.

She wasn’t able to score a seat for Monday night’s event, but she did find a way in the door: as a volunteer seat-filler. If anyone in the audience had to run to the bathroom during the five-hour slog, Moran got to slip into their seat to make sure the room looked full for the cameras. Just like they do at the Oscars.

"I figure this is actually my best spot of getting in there," Moran said.

It’s not a job that needs to be filled at your typical New Hampshire town hall.

Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University.
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