Debates, Polls and Politics

Behind the scenes of the Gubernatorial Debates and Roanoke College Poll

The Roanoke College campus has been the center of several statewide political activities in the Fall of 2009. The candidates for Lieutenant Governor and Governor gathered in Olin Hall to debate on two consecutive nights. A packed crowd gathered to watch Republican Bob McDonnell and Democrat Creigh Deeds debate on October 20.

Student & Staff Help

Several students mobilized to help the College staff host this event. College Democrats and College Republicans sent members to host their candidates. Students from the Public Affairs Society, journalism classes and several campus offices helped show campaign staff members and the many journalists around Olin Hall. Student hosts had the opportunity to see firsthand how a debate was produced and organized.

College staff for the debate came from several areas of the College. Staff from Olin Hall, the site of all the action, along with community programs, catering, buildings and grounds, campus safety, information technology and public relations pulled together to organize the events and welcome guests from the Commonwealth of Virginia to campus.

War Rooms & Green Rooms

In addition to the debates coming from Olin Theater, the set-ups for the events included “war” rooms for each campaign as well as a “quiet” room for each campaign – to allow the candidates to prepare for the debate away from the busy war room. Smoyer Gallery was set up as overflow seating for those who didn’t have tickets to the theater, and the debate was projected onto a screen for viewing. In addition to the campaign staffs and debate audiences, WSLS 10, the local NBC affiliate airing the debates, had more than 20 staff members on site to produce the live broadcast.


A who’s who of Virginia political journalists covered the debate from Roanoke College. Olin Recital Hall was outfitted with a TV broadcast, mult box, tables and power strips for laptops, cameras, recorders and other tools of the journalist’s trade. Prior to the debates, reporters and camera crews set up outside Olin Hall for live broadcasts on the evening news.

Reporters in attendance represented: the Associated Press, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, The Roanoke Times, Richmond Times Dispatch, Lynchburg News & Advance, Salem Times Register, WSLS, WDBJ, WSET and others. Roanoke College students covered the event for the Brackety Ack and for the College’s twitter feed (@roanokecollege). After each debate, the reporters rushed to the stage for the post-debate “gaggle” of questions thrown at the candidates.

The Campaigns

Campaign workers arrived early to blanket the Olin Hall area with campaign signs for both candidates. McDonnell and Deeds each held short rallies with their supporters outside Olin Hall in the hours before the debate. And a local gay rights group organized a peaceful and lawful protest on the public sidewalk along High Street.

Tense Moments

The events were well organized but two tense moments did occur, and since they were mentioned in news reports of the debates, they’re worth mentioning here. During the Lieutenant Governor debate, a question arose about candidate’s use of outside notes during the debate. The Virginia Bar Association, as the debate sponsor, had worked with the two campaigns on the debate rules. The campaign manager and another staff member from Bill Bolling’s campaign were quite upset with the “rules question” and raised the issue, along with their voices, outside Olin Theater. Campus Safety quickly escorted them outside to discuss their concerns with a VBA representative … and kindly reminded them to act like gentlemen before they were allowed to return to the building. Their outburst was part of the story in The Richmond Times Dispatch.

Just as the gubernatorial debate was getting underway the next night, a technical issue occurred after a “perfect storm” of sound, electrical and broadcast problems hit all at once. Sound to the broadcast was lost, along with sound to the campus viewing party, the campaign war rooms and the media room (where both campaigns and the media watch the debate, rather than from the theater). Campaign staffers tried to enter the packed theater, with campus safety holding them back. Media reporters tried to enter the stage door after they feared the debate would continue and they would not be able to hear it.

The technical issue was resolved within minutes (which seemed like hours to the Roanoke College staff and WSLS staff trying to correct the problem!). WSLS, the sponsor for that evening, started the debate over with the opening statements from each candidate. Reporters returned to the Recital Hall to listen to the debate there, and most of the campaign staff watched from the aisle of the theater.

The Roanoke College Poll

As all the debate excitement was beginning with the Lieutenant Governor debates on Oct. 19, students in the Research Methods course were starting to make phone calls for the Roanoke College Poll, an election year opinion poll of likely Virginia voters.

The poll was conducted by Dr. Harry Wilson through the College’s Center for Community Research. Under Dr. Wilson’s direction, students in the class conduct phone interviews and record the results for several evenings. Dr. Wilson then analyzes the results and publishes the Roanoke College Poll.

The 2009 poll showed McDonnell with a large lead over Deeds. The poll also showed Republicans leading Democratic candidates in the races for Lieutenant Governor and Attorney General. Ultimately, the poll predicted the outcome within one percent of the final vote.

Wilson was the political analyst for WDBJ 7 in Roanoke on election night and joined WVTF Public Radio the next morning to discuss the election outcome.

The Roanoke College Poll often gets great media coverage. So far this year, it’s been seen in The Washington Post,,, Richmond Times Dispatch, and others. Check out the Roanoke in the News web page for links to specific stories. As you review gubernatorial election coverage, take note of the polls cited or the images used. Chances are you’ll find a Roanoke College connection.

Released: November 9, 2009