“Democracy is the art and science of running the circus from the monkey cage,” the acerbic journalist H.L. Mencken once wrote. And this week South Florida will be close enough to throw bananas as the 2016 presidential big top rolls into town, with the two big parties staging debates on back-to-back nights.
“It’s going to be hot-hot-hot!” predicts Glenn Thrush, chief political correspondent for Politico. “Children might be conceived, instant rehabs might be initiated, candidates could be crushed. It’s going to be a completely nuts week.”
The Democrats kick things off at 9 p.m. Wednesday when Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders go at it in Miami Dade College’s Theodore R. Gibson Health Center on the school’s Kendall campus. The Republicans follow at 8:30 p.m. Thursday when Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and John Kasich take the stage at the BankUnited Center on the University of Miami’s Coral Gables campus.
The debates, which kick off a week of intense campaigning before the March 15 Florida primary that could go a long way toward settling the nominations in both parties, offer our community some very special opportunities: to be gouged bloodless on hotel and car-rental bills; to be bored senseless by wonky delegate-selection-rule discussions among party hacks, reporters and political junkies sitting at the next table in our restaurants; and to see what Ted Cruz really does during commercial breaks in debates.
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“If a hotel room usually costs $110, now it’s $300. If a hamburger usually costs $12, now it’ll be $15.95,” says political consultant Roger Stone. “This circus only comes around every four years, and everybody’s got to take advantage of it. When politicians promise to fix the economy, this is what they mean.”
The prices don’t ward off the small army of campaign staffers, reporters — the Democrats have issued credentials for more than 500 journalists; the Republicans consider their number even more highly classified than Hillary Clinton’s emails, and won’t release it — and weird camp followers who troop around the country to debates.
“It’s like a little snow globe we travel in,” says Thrush. “I walk into a bar and I see all the same reporters and camera crew and political groupies I saw in Iowa or New Hampshire.
“The strangest thing about it are the political junkies. In Des Moines this guy who was a schoolteacher from New Jersey walked up to me and said, ‘Hey, aren’t you Glenn Thrush from Politico?’ I mean, it’s not as if I’m on television and everybody sees my face on TV all the time. I’m, like, ‘Hey, do you have a life? Hey, please don’t kill me, I have small children!’”
On the other hand, this is South Florida, where it’s not unknown for a dissatisfied fast-food customer to hurl an alligator through the drive-through window, so we’re unlikely to be daunted by mere tourist-grade bizarreness.
“Oh, I hope it rubs off on the candidates!” say conservative author Ann Coulter — she’s in town for the Republican debate and a Thursday book presentation at Books & Books — of Florida’s penchant for weirdness. “The debates are getting a little boring. Maybe they could have Rubio explain a foam party to the other candidates.” She refers to Rubio’s oft-expressed fondness for parties of his youth at South Beach clubs where clouds of soap suds dropped out of the ceiling and, sometimes, unwholesome behavior was said to follow.
The most likely places to run into these meandering debate hordes are Marriott hotels near the debate venues — both political staffs and journalists love Marriotts because they have a bounteous frequent-guest program. Exception: The Clintons are known to prefer the Biltmore. Whichever you choose, the chatter may be less illuminating than you expect.
“Hotel bars at these things are where groupthink was invented,” says Stone. “You’ve got all these reporters and politicians sitting around eating and drinking together and deciding all kinds of things that might or might not be true. If you’d been at the hotel bars during the 1980 Democratic primaries, you would have heard the Jimmy Carter people talking about how they hoped they’d be running against Ronald Reagan. How’d that turn out for them?”
If you have a ticket to one of the debates, though, you’ll see some interesting stuff that TV audiences miss when the action breaks for commercials. “It’s not necessarily what you would expect,” says Fox News host Chris Wallace, one of the moderators of the Republican debate in Detroit earlier this month at which Trump boasted about the size of his reproductive plumbing.
“Trump and Rubio seemed cordial off-stage, I saw them talking with each other a few times. Cruz, during the breaks, brings one of his adorable little daughters on stage and swings her around. I got the sense that some people like each other, or at least get along, better than you might think. Kasich spent a lot of his time during the breaks working the referees, lobbying us to ask him more questions.”
Getting those tickets, however, isn’t easy. About 2,000 tickets were issued for the Republican debate, 1,300 for the Democratic. Most of those were sucked up by the campaigns, with only a few dozen left for the colleges where the debates are being held.
The University of Miami gave away a few to students through a lottery, though some say the campus is largely indifferent to the debate. “There’s a kind of general apathy about it,” says Jacob Rudolph, a junior political science major from New Jersey who lost an election for student-government president a few weeks ago. “A few people may be into the spectacle of it, but as far as an election to decide the country’s future, forget it.”
At Miami Dade, a student or two may even get to ask the Democratic candidates a question. Univision, the Spanish-language TV network that’s one of the debate’s sponsors (it will also be broadcast on CNN and the cable network Fusion), auditioned several students last week, checking on the sharpness of their questions and their Spanish skills.
“I still don’t have the question finalized, but it’s going to be about student debt and how it will really affect people like me,” said Maydee Martinez, a 20-year-old sophomore from Miami who’s in the running.
Though Maydee says she’ll almost certainly vote for a Democratic candidate, she admits to a certain wistfulness that she’s not getting a shot at the free-swinging Republican debate, where literally nothing is off-limits.
“Especially since one of my friends just set up the Donald Trump Has Small Hands Political Action Committee. It’s legal and everything.”