Presidential Debate Thoughts

Welcome back to the fourth consecutive year of this entertainment blog! The terribly named “Let Me Entertain You” has been with me for the entirety of my college experience. I remember being but a wee freshman, thrilled at the prospect of having my own forum to discuss entertainment and politics with a personalized flair. I’m really excited to be continuing with this blog in my senior year; it’s been with me through thick and thin, spanning time and continents.

I thought I’d begin this year with a discussion of the biggest event on campus this week: the watch party for the first presidential debate on Monday, September 26. Cohen Auditorium was aglow from the screens of hundreds of laptops and cell phones that night, as students shared their reactions to the debate on various social media platforms in tandem with the event playing out on the large screen at the front of the room. The debate audience in Hofstra University may have been cautioned to silence by moderator Lester Holt—a requirement which was occasionally ignored—but Tufts students were not beholden to this request. Statements made by the Democratic nominee, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, were met by scattered snaps of approval and applause, not to mention occasional cheers. Answers and interruptions by Donald J. Trump elicited audible groans and derisive laughter from the students in the auditorium. As the debate progressed, I attempted to distance myself from this audience, and even tried to tune out the live commentary I was following on Twitter. I realized that my experience was colored more by the reactions of those around me than the words of the candidates themselves.

Watching the debate in a communal setting was enjoyable in the beginning, but by the end I was annoyed by my fellow students and by the constant barrage of hot takes on Twitter. The livestream was about thirty seconds behind the television debate, which I realized because tweets mentioned comments a candidate had made that I hadn’t yet seen. Furthermore, the constant cheering or clapping occasionally drowned out a question or a response. I found myself wondering what the elusive “average American” felt about the debate. If I wasn’t obsessed with politics, if I didn’t love presidential history, if I had no access to Twitter, if I rarely read or watched the news, how would I feel about the debate? As the Cohen crowd became increasingly restless towards the end of the event, I realized that I didn’t know the answer.

I’ve been wrestling with this question over the past few days. As an aspiring journalist myself, I was relieved to find that pundits agreed with me on the most fundamental takeaway: Clinton won the debate easily, but neither candidate necessarily attracted independent voters to their camps. This coverage has been reinforced as Trump has continued to make mistakes in his defense of his poor performance. Interestingly, I think that because Clinton did so well, the debate will serve as most debates have since 1960: to reinforce the dominant narrative which will lead to the frontrunner’s victory. Clinton exceeded the unfairly high expectations, which had been placed upon her. If she had failed, or even if Trump had cleared the low bar, which had been set before him, this may have been the rare debate, which makes a difference in the election’s outcome. Yet because the debate conformed to what almost everyone already thought, I’m not sure that it will do anything more than to galvanize the two candidates’ preexisting bases.

There are two more debates between Clinton and Trump, as well as a vice presidential debate next week. I think it is unlikely that either of the next presidential debates will have higher viewership than the one on Monday; for the average American, usually the first debate is the only one that they need to see in order to reaffirm their beliefs about both candidates.

When I was in Cohen on Monday, I truly felt like I was participating in democracy; this is the first presidential election in which I am able to vote, and I treat that responsibility with the utmost respect. Even if debates don’t matter in the ultimate outcome of the election, they matter to what this country is, and what it strives to be: a place in which anyone can succeed with the support of the people. That is a hopeful and terrifying principle, and what makes America such a confounding democracy. With forty days left until November 8, the American people must decide if Clinton’s first debate victory was indicative of what the outcome of the election will be.

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