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Debate Takes on International Flavor

More than 50 international delegates study our democratic process in person at UNLV to bring lessons back to their home countries.

People  |  Oct 26, 2016  |  By Jason Scavone
Debate attendee

Vukosava Cmjanski, director of Serbia’s Center for Research, Transparency and Accountability and National Democratic Institute’s International Study Program delegate attended the Presidential Debate. (R. Marsh Starks/UNLV Photo Services)


About 71.6 million Americans watched Wednesday night’s Presidential Debate from UNLV, according to Nielsen estimates. But the event extended well beyond U.S. soil. International interest in this election has been massive — and not just in international media. 

There were 54 delegates from 30 countries participating in the National Democratic Institute’s (NDI) International Study Program, which invites debate organizers in young democracies to the United States to see our process up close and personal. The delegates spent six days at UNLV, learning techniques and methods they can bring back to their countries.

Blake Douglas, senior director of alumni programs and events, was the university’s liaison with the delegates and spent about six months preparing for their trip. He helped ensure UNLV students had a chance to learn from the delegates while they were learning about the American political process. 

On Oct. 18, delegates followed Frank Fahrenkopf, co-chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates, to a communications class led by professors Jake Thompson and David Henry. There representatives from Serbia, Jamaica, and Guatemala talked about issues surrounding debates in their own elections.Frank Fahrenkopf, co-chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates, addresses the delegates for the International Study Mission during a pre-Presidential Debate luncheon on campus.

“Whether you are in Nepal or South America or Europe, we are more or less young democracies building democratic culture, building debating as a way of communicating and pushing politicians to talk about policies,” said Vukosava Cmjanski, director of Serbia’s Center for Research, Transparency and Accountability. “What's going on — not just in Serbia but the rest of the world — (is) politicians are avoiding discussing things."

Cmjanski’s organization helps arrange debates in Serbia, but instead of operating as a government-sanctioned body, it instead took its cues from a distinctly American group: Politifact.

Politifact helped inspire a worldwide coterie of fact-checking organizations, with more than 40 of them gathering in London two years ago to exchange ideas and information. 

That was similar to what the NDI developed for the international delegates who were in the Thomas & Mack Center the night of the debate. 

The following morning, they gathered in the Student Union to discuss what they’d seen the night before, and though there were occasional forays into the subject of the debate, most of what anyone wanted to talk about were the technical details pertinent to organizers. Things like the size of Spin Alley, moderator Chris Wallace’s performance, and why screens weren’t placed behind the candidates in the arena to allow for a better look at the candidates’ faces. 

“The event was very, very well-managed,” said Brian Schmidt of the Jamaica Debates Commission. “As a production person, I really appreciated the production and the security. I thought it went very smoothly. I liked the structure of the debate because it tried to compartmentalize things and force candidates as much as possible to deliver. 

“At the end of the day, the debates are about the people debating. While you may have a mission as a debating organization, they have their (own) agenda, and they’re going to try to do what they want to do to match their agenda … Once you understand that, you know how to operate.”

The mission had the added bonus of exposing the delegates to both UNLV and our city. While hadn’t heard of UNLV before coming to Las Vegas, there were many who were surprised and delighted by all the university — and Las Vegas — had to offer. 

“We did some field trips with them,” Douglas said. “We took them to the High Roller. We went to the observation deck of the Stratosphere. The hustle and bustle of Vegas was pretty eye-opening. A group of them had heard a whole lot about the Bellagio fountain show, so we sent a group down to see that and they were very excited about that opportunity.”