While millions will watch the third Republican presidential debate on TV, just 1,000 people will get tickets to see the event in person in the massive Coors Events Center on the scenic University of Colorado campus in Boulder.
CNBC, the cable network sponsoring the debate, didn’t respond to questions about why the 11,000-seat arena would remain mostly empty.
“The way it was explained to us by CNBC is the event is meant for a TV audience, not so much for a live audience,” said Ryan Lynch, the executive director of the Colorado Republican Party, which will get 200 tickets to split among party donors and elected officials.
The first Republican candidate debate, in Cleveland, had a large number of empty seats too — about 4,500 seats were filled in a 20,000-seat arena.
Lynch says the Republican National Committee also gets 200 seats, the presidential candidates onstage will each get some, CNBC will keep some for itself and the University of Colorado will get 150 seats.
That’s not nearly enough for University of Colorado senior Aaron Estevez-Miller.
“The undergraduate student body is over 30,000-people strong,” said Estevez-Miller, noting that doesn’t include faculty, staff or graduate students.
Estevez-Miller co-founded a group to push the school to request more tickets — which bumped the university’s allotment up from 100 to 150 tickets. The school has also organized a watch party for students.
“At that point, you know, [the candidates] could be half a mile away at the Coors Center or hundreds of miles away in D.C. and it would make no difference,” said Estevez-Miller.
“We think it’ll be a great opportunity for the community, the economic impact, the branding for CU and for Boulder,” said university spokesman Ryan Huff. “I think that will inspire some people to apply who maybe have never heard of our university before or want to learn more about it.”
University officials didn’t know the school would get such a small number of tickets when CNBC approached it about hosting, said Huff.
There’s also the question of why famously liberal Boulder, where 70 percent of voters backed Barack Obama over Mitt Romney in 2012, would host this debate.
“You know if you look at the voter registration, Boulder would lean left, but this was another event we could have to really broaden the kind of viewpoints for our students to hear,” said Huff.
But students won’t hear those voices in person — even those who are potentially open to the Republican Party’s message in a likely swing state. Freshman Dylan Robinson-Ruet is registered as an independent and eager to vote for the first time in 2016 but said Republican organizers and CNBC are missing out on a chance to connect with students.
“I mean obviously their focus is national, but they’re on our campus and I expected it to be more than a facade. Because that’s all we’re being used as,” said Robinson-Ruet.
So while the candidates debate inside, Robinson-Ruet says he plans to be outside protesting the event.