JACKSONVILLE, Florida — Thursday night’s CNN debate will be held on the campus of University of North Florida, home to more than 16,000 students—but don’t expect any of them to be in the audience.
University president John Delaney told BuzzFeed that tickets were only given to “about 80” students—enough to fill a small portion of the 1,200-seat auditorium.
The state Republican Party, which is hosting the debate, gave the university 100 tickets to distribute, and Delaney said the school passed on “about half” of those to students. He estimated that the party probably gave out a few dozen more to UNF’s loyal Ospreys. (Yes, that’s the school’s mascot.)
A larger student presence likely would have benefitted Ron Paul. Like many colleges, UNF is home to a vocal contingent of Paul supporters; Delaney said the student newspaper recently surveyed 600 students on their candidate of choice, and the libertarian was the overwhelming favorite.
Even without a loud student section, though, audience participation is expected to be a factor. While CNN Washington Bureau Chief Sam Feist said they planned to give the same instructions to their audience as always—no booing, no cheering, be respectful, etc.—the loud cheers during the last CNN debate provided Newt Gingrich with a momentum boost that helped him score a late upset in South Carolina.
Gingrich has fed off the energy of his audiences, but Romney also appears to understand the importance of the audience factor. At a campaign stop here earlier today, he encouraged supporters to turn out to the debate and cheer him on.
There was one problem, a supporter in the crowd shouted out: “There are no tickets left!”