Whatever the political outcome, one certain winner in the Sept. 16 GOP candidates’ debate is going to be the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum in Simi Valley.
The debate will be the fourth presidential candidate forum to be held at the library, and it almost certainly will deliver a huge television audience. That means plenty of exposure and a spike in visitors to the already popular East Ventura County destination.
“It’s so perfect for us,” said Melissa Giller, chief marketing officer for the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation, in an Aug. 10 phone chat about the library’s role, debate preparations and impact.
The Regan Library’s Air Force One exhibit makes for one of the most impressive backdrops for a debate.
The September program will be co-produced with CNN with Jake Tapper serving as moderator. In the past, Giller said, debates were followed by a spike in visitors. With an audience that might well exceed the 24 million who tuned into the Fox News debate in Cleveland on Aug. 6, the impact could be huge.
With roughly 375,000 visitors a year, the Reagan Library clocks in at No. 3 on the Business Times list of museums and attractions, trailing the Santa Barbara Zoo (450,000) and the Hearst Castle (800,000). It’s conceivable that for at least one year, the library could give the creatures at the zoo a run for their money.
The Reagan Library and Foundation staff can already claim some influence on how the process has worked. Along with CNN, the staff had already decided on a two-tiered structure, with the top 10 candidates in the most recent national polls competing in one panel and six additional candidates who poll at least 1 percent in a second panel.
Fox, which hosted the fiery Aug. 6 contest, was ready to exclude the lower-rated candidates when a public outcry erupted. Fox regrouped and, at the last minute, adapted pretty much the Reagan Library’s September format.
Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina emerged from that debate as the winner, with perhaps a big enough jump in ratings to make the top tier in September.
The 16 invitations for the September debate were personally sent by former First Lady Nancy Reagan. Whether she will attend or not depends on the health of the 94-year-old former actress.
Giller said the Reagan Library has worked closely with CNN on past debates, giving its approval for CNN to build a mezzanine-like structure that makes Air Force One a piece of living history to serve as the backdrop.
The only drawback, she said, is that there’s no room to invite several thousand members of the public who would be present at an arena or stadium.
At press time, there was every reason to believe that frontrunner Donald Trump would be at the debate. My guess is that more than one person invoked the dictum made famous by the Gipper, “thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican,” as Fox News Chief Roger Ailes and Trump spoke by phone and at least temporarily ended their acrimonious dispute.
Giller said the pre-debate on Aug. 6 drew 10 million viewers, making it the third highest for any primary debate in history. That sets Sept. 16 up for a record audience and a corresponding spike in visitors shortly thereafter.
While Ohio Gov. John Kasich was viewed to have maximized his home-field advantage in Cleveland in August, many candidates are familiar with the Reagan Library. Jeb Bush’s talk on Aug. 11 was part of a speaker series that hosted Fiorina in late July. Meanwhile, 10 others, including Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, Rand Paul and Chris Christy, have previously spoken at the library.
The Sept. 16 debate is a reminder that No. 40 cut a large figure throughout the region. His Western White House was perched in the hills above Santa Barbara and he was a frequent visitor. His burial at the library was a landmark event, broadcast around the world.
Reagan’s life was shaped by television and he, in turn, reshaped the way television and politics play against each other. More than a decade after his death, his library continues to play a role in the relationship between the media and politics.
And the staff seems to revel in the limelight.
“We work hard. We work weekends. It’s exciting to be part of history,” Giller said.
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