Detroit, Michigan’s Fox Theatre held the GOP presidential debate Thursday, March 3.
Macaela Bennett | Collegian
Although tickets to last Thursday’s GOP presidential debate in Detroit, Michigan, were scarce, Hillsdale College students, staff, and faculty didn’t have a problem finding their way into the audience.
Days before the debate was set to be held at the historic Fox Theatre, about 21,000 people had applied for tickets to the event, but the Republican National Committee announced only 50 would receive them — with the rest going to Michigan GOP officials and activists. Through several connections, however, more than 15 Hillsdale College representatives received tickets to the March 3 debate hosted by Fox News Channel.
Seeing the candidates in person changed some of their opinions.
“I’m pretty sure my wife became a Cruz voter that night,” said John Miller, director of the Dow Journalism Program.
Miller scored his tickets from Emmaline Epperson ’14, a social media producer for the Fox Business Channel, and attended the debate with his wife and son — who voted for his first time Tuesday in Michigan’s presidential primary.
Experiencing behind-the-scenes moments that TV audiences did not see made an impression on the Millers.
“My wife liked seeing Cruz play ring-around-the-rosy with his daughter — I think that really charmed her,” he said.
When lights dimmed for a commercial break after Ohio Gov. John Kasich rejected the opportunity to bash businessman Donald Trump, Miller noticed Trump point at Kasich and say, “Thank you.”
“I’ve never seen Trump thank anyone,” Miller said. “I’m not sure what to make of it, but he did it there, and what does that mean?”
Six students also attended, including two from the Collegian, with tickets acquired from Career Services.
While coordinating an upcoming Republican Leadership Initiative training program on campus, RNC Director of Strategic Partnerships Mike Mears offered Hillsdale Career Services the tickets three days before the debate.
Career Services Assistant Director John Quint then reached out to campus groups and gave the tickets to those who were able to respond quickly.
Other students got tickets through their campaign involvement. Senior Dominic Restuccia, chairman of Michigan Students for Rubio, was put in charge of distributing tickets to young supporters who could make noise for Rubio in the debate hall. Restuccia said he gave the tickets to students on campuses around the Midwest based on their performances working for the campaign, which included three other Hillsdale students.
Although the goal was to make sure the young supporters would foster a vocal presence for Rubio during the debate, Restuccia emphasized the responsibility attendees have.
“You have to maintain respect because you can affect other supporters in the debate and the candidates,” he said. “Like the Trump supporters interrupted other candidates a lot early on, and that affects the way candidates respond by either bolstering or distracting them, and all of them react differently. Kasich can get really thrown off when he’s booed, Trump grows more ardent, and Cruz and Rubio stay mostly the same.”
Analyzing how the candidates interacted during their post-debate handshakes showed a lot about their relationships, too, Restuccia said.
“It’s neat to see how their relationships seem to have changed over the campaign,” he said. “Cruz and Trump have gotten more hostile, but Cruz and Rubio seem like they are closer.”
Miller said he found even more Hillsdale connections by wearing his Hillsdale baseball cap to act as a “beacon.” A number of Hillsdale graduates and their family members introduced themselves when they noticed it.
One of those was alumnus Charles Couger ’12, who now works as an associate producer for Fox News’ “On the Record with Greta Van Susteren.”
Miller said TV is the best way to watch debates for their content, but he said meeting so many Hillsdale contacts and experiencing the energy of the debate made it into a “wonderful spectacle.”
“There’s a sense of something important happening right before your eyes when you’re there,” he said.