Frustrated Colorado voters have a new way to get to know candidates this election season
MSU Denver launches The Solution Studio, a voter-education platform that challenges the traditional debate model.
Metropolitan State University of Denver is hosting a series of candidate forums this fall that aim to better inform and engage voters who are weary, suspicious and frustrated with an election process that sees opposing candidates devote more energy to attacking others and defending themselves than offering real solutions.
The Solution Studio — presented by MSU Denver’s Institute for Public Service in collaboration with New Voices Strategies and the Colorado Latino Leadership, Advocacy and Research Organization — invited candidates for governor and the U.S. Senate to participate individually in small, moderated panel-style sessions with students, answering questions that tackle issues such as homelessness, inflation and climate action.
Incumbent U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat, and his Republican opponent Joe O’Dea have both confirmed that they will be participating. Republican gubernatorial candidate Heidi Ganahl, who is hoping to unseat Gov. Jared Polis, has also agreed to participate. The Solution Studio has invited Polis, a Democrat, to take part as well.
There will be no audience at the sessions — just the candidate, four students and a moderator. Each session will be recorded and broadcast by participating media partners following the Oct. 17 mailing of midterm-election ballots.
How to watch The Solution Studio:
PBS 12, Univision Colorado, Colorado Public Radio and the Colorado Sun will broadcast the sessions and cover specific angles of the panel discussions for each candidate on the following dates, and recordings will also be available at msudenver.edu/solution-studio:
Oct. 17 – Heidi Ganahl
Oct. 20 – Joe O’Dea
Oct. 20 – Jared Polis
Oct. 21 – Michael Bennet
Instead of candidates facing off against one another on stage and redirecting topics or playing off one another’s answers, The Solution Studio’s intimate format allows candidates to dedicate their attention to uninterrupted and, ideally, authentic answers.
“The traditional debate format, where candidates are asked questions and take turns with timed responses, incentivizes a focus on sound bites,” said Robert Preuhs, Ph.D., professor and chair of MSU Denver’s Department of Political Science. “So the outcome of a debate is less substantive. It’s geared to the pithy, zinger response.”
Two focus groups consisting of working-adult MSU Denver students met in August to discuss economic and quality-of-life challenges they’re facing. The Solution Studio organizers will use information gleaned from those focus groups to develop topics of discussion for the panels, said Tom Cosgrove, founder of New Voices Strategies, who conceived of the candidate forums in response to voter frustration.
In a traditional debate format, “your candidate’s only there to create enough noise to get people talking,” Cosgrove said. “But government requires solutions, not slogans.”
Preuhs foresees The Solution Studio potentially bypassing the “appalling” disregard for time limits and the name-calling behavior that marked the 2020 presidential campaign.
“There’s a greater degree of authenticity with The Solution Studio format. I think we’ll see the candidate be the candidate,” he said. “You’ll get more depth and probably more polish. But the unique quality of the panel is that it involves students. There’s the opportunity for interaction and asking questions important to them.
“That makes it harder to have an inauthentic dialogue between the candidate and the individual.”
Cosgrove, who describes himself as a civic entrepreneur and pursues innovative approaches to create change within the public-service arena, this year approached John Masserini, DMA, dean of MSU Denver’s College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, with a solutions-focused voter-engagement concept.
“I thought, ‘MSU Denver is the perfect place to do this,’” said Masserini, who noted that the University’s students represent a new generation of public servants who are hopeful that The Solution Studio will create a meaningful intersection of ideas for students and candidates.
“The Solution Studio has huge implications for multiple constituent groups, and I think this can change the dynamic of how we engage candidates in the future,” Masserini said.
Boasting the strongest undergraduate-student voter turnout of any college in the country in 2016, MSU Denver is akin to a sleeping giant lying across the campaign trail. The diversity of its student body — older, more first-generation students, more than 50% students of color and more than 80% working at least one job — offers candidates access to a swath of educated voters that pushes back against the college-student stereotype.
MSU Denver student Naomi Jacquez, who participated in the focus groups held last month and plans to graduate in spring, said she’s ready for real answers from candidates. The 26-year-old Indigenous and Latina student majoring in Biology and minoring in Geographic Information Systems said there was no doubt in her mind that she wanted to participate in the project.
“I’m hopeful filming The Solution Studio is more than a photo op on the campaign stop,” she said. “I hope this panel helps the candidates hear the real problems of the voters and inspires them to have these difficult conversations and implement change.”
A first-generation American, Jessica Arguelles is a Nursing student working full-time and mother to a 6-year-old. Her father was politically active in his native Mexican community, and he instilled in Arguelles the importance of civic participation and getting deep into ballot issues.
The second-largest voting bloc in the state, the Latino vote is no longer a monolithic one. A recent national survey of Latino voters by UnidosUS and Mi Familia Vota found that 63% of Latino voters in Colorado believe the country is on the wrong track, and 61% say they are certain they will vote in November.
“I know some people who just vote down the ballot for the Democratic Party, but my father taught me to research the issues,” Arguelles said. “I want to know what the candidates are really promising.”