Saint Anselm College has a history of hosting debates that goes back to the 1980s. In 1984, the League of Women Voters chose the Dana Center for the Humanities as the venue for its New Hampshire Presidential Primary debate not only for its adequate seating, proper lighting and sound and protection for the candidates, but also because Saint Anselm welcomed the debate with classic Benedictine hospitality.
This debate, which featured Walter Mondale, John Glenn, Jesse Jackson, and the primary winner, Gary Hart, marked the beginning of an important political relationship between this small Catholic college and debate sponsors.
The excitement returned to the Hilltop in February of 1988. Undaunted by a formidable, February snowstorm, the league sponsored separate Democratic and Republican debates broadcast by Cable News Network (later known as CNN). The 1988 Democratic forum featured Mike Dukakis, Al Gore, Bruce Babbitt, Dick Gephardt, Gary Hart, Paul Simon, and Jesse Jackson. The next day George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, Jack Kemp, Pierre S. du Pont, and Pat Robertson gathered for the Republican debate.
In 1992, Democrats who wanted to unseat President Bush gathered in the Dana Center. The debate, the only one held without an audience at Saint Anselm, was reported by CNN and New Hampshire Public Radio. The candidates included Jerry Brown, Bill Clinton, Tom Harkin, Bob Kerrey, and Paul Tsongas.
The last debate held at Saint Anselm prior to the creation of the college's New Hampshire Institute of Politics was in 1996, featuring Republican candidates Bob Dole, Steve Forbes, and Pat Buchanan. CNN sponsored the debate, marking the end of the League of Women Voters' long run as a primary debate organizer. From then on, commercial broadcasters became the main sponsors of debates.