The Westminster community reacts to the 2020 presidential debates

President Trump and President-elect Biden engage in the debate.

Photo credit CNN

President Trump and President-elect Biden engage in the debate.

On Nov. 7, the Associated Press announced Joe Biden as the 46th president-elect of the United States. Four days prior, on Nov. 3, voters went to the polls to cast their ballots to decide who the president would be for the next four years. This year, voter turnout was the highest that it has been in more than a century. Informed votes and the votes of undecided voters played an essential role in the election, helping to decide its eventual outcome. Furthermore, the two presidential debates played a key role providing citizens with information about each candidate and their policies.

The first presidential debate took place in Cleveland, Ohio, at Case Western University on Sept. 29. Chris Wallace, an American journalist and the television anchor of Fox News Sunday, acted as the moderator. The debate was 90 minutes long and included segments on six different issues. These topics included the Supreme Court, the COVID-19 pandemic, race and violence in cities, election integrity, and the economy. According to CNN, this debate was the third most-watched debate in American history, with more than 73.1 million viewers.

However, the debate got slightly out of control at times from both sides. After being interrupted by President Donald Trump, former Vice President Joe Biden remarked to Trump, “Will you shut up, man?” and “It’s hard to get any word in with this clown.” The president-elect also said, “This is a president who has used everything as a dog whistle to try to generate racist hatred, racist division.” 

Additionally, when asked to condemn white supremacy groups, Trump asked, “Give me a name,” to which Biden responded “Proud Boys,” a far-right and neo-fascist male-only organization that engages in and promotes political violence. Trump then proceeded to reply, “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by, but I’ll tell you what, I’ll tell you what, somebody’s got to do something about Antifa and the Left, because this is not a right-wing problem, this is a left-wing problem.” 

This remark was perceived by some to be President Trump refusing to condemn white supremacists and deflecting the situation instead. Furthermore, fact-checkers refuted many of his statements involving the scale of the pandemic and economic growth. 

“I don’t think either candidate really distinguished himself,” said George Berry, the Young Conservatives faculty advisor. “I thought there was way too much talking over one another, not listening to each other, not letting the other person finish before you started. I don’t think either candidate did very well.”

“I think that a lot of people in presidential debate history would allow for the possibility that stylistic differences exist,” said John Monahan, the faculty advisor for Young Democrats. “It’s up to the voters to decide if they like or dislike a particular candidate. There’s a performative element of theater to it, but where the line is between performative things that answer the question and performative things that don’t help voters clarify anything about either candidate is objective.”

The candidates frequently neglected to uphold the time restrictions agreed upon by their respective parties. Both participants interrupted one another and spoke beyond the allotted time throughout the tumultuous debate. 

“In a debate, you’re trying to get your plan across for the nation, and in this [debate], I heard a lot of insults, interruptions, and [information] that was not really relevant,” said senior Siya Kalra. “I think it’s almost representative of some of the conversations going on throughout the country, and I think we need to do better in really listening to people instead of taking one thing they say and running with it, because it’s often not what they actually mean. The election was definitely divisive, but I’m hoping we as a country can come together no matter who is sworn in in January.”

The debate, primarily because of the comments made and the perpetual interrupting, received criticism from many journalists and news commentators. It was called “a hot mess, inside a dumpster fire, inside a train wreck” and a “disgrace” by CNN’s Jake Tapper and “the worst presidential debate I have ever seen in my life” by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, among many others. According to a CNN post-debate poll, 60 percent of viewers perceived president-elect Biden as the winner, and 28 percent perceived Trump as the victor. A majority of debate watchers, 57 percent, said that the debate did not affect their choice for president. 

“They basically got their points out, but I just felt like the way they went about it almost marred any communication to what they stood for,” said Berry. “I’m not sure if the debates changed people’s minds much, but maybe they clarified things for some people, since there are a lot of people out there who are undecided.”

The final presidential debate took place in Nashville, Tennessee, at Belmont University on Oct. 22. Kristen Welker, an American television journalist and White House correspondent for NBC News, moderated the debate. This debate followed the same structure and format as the first debate, except with differing topics. Additionally, the debate organizers implemented muted mics to help the participants adhere to the time limits better. The subjects of this debate included fighting COVID-19, American families, race in America, climate change, national security, and leadership. 

This debate consisted of significantly fewer interruptions. President Trump announced that a vaccine for COVID-19 would be released in the following weeks, and when questioned, remarked, “I take full responsibility. It’s not my fault that it came here. It’s China’s fault.” Biden criticized the president’s response to the pandemic, claiming that he did not take enough action or have a solid plan to fight COVID-19.

According to CNN, 53 percent of viewers thought Biden won the debate, while 39 percent thought that Trump did. Prior to the debate, 55 percent favored Biden, and 42 percent favored Trump, while after the debate, 56 percent favored Biden, and 41 percent favored Trump. 

“A common question from the students this year is how Joe Biden’s approach to the pandemic would have been different from Trump’s,” said Monahan. “I think we also got questions about race and climate change, and especially among young people, these are issues that have not dominated policymaking or politics as much as they would like. So, I was relieved when those questions were asked because the candidates are running to be president of the whole country, and the people that live with the consequences of their decisions most and for longest are the people coming of age right now. “

Westminster, as a school, has worked toward promoting productive dialogue about social and political issues during advisement. Before the election, each homeroom watched an informative video about the election and shared questions and comments afterward. These discussions covered the electoral college, swing states, the candidates, and how the students felt about the election overall. 

Additionally, a few weeks prior to the election, the Weekly Updates included a number of resources for individual research about the election. Furthermore, the administration projected live election updates in Warren Lecture Hall, and faculty offered to answer students’ questions.

“I think having civil discussions is essential in school settings because the future leaders of this country occupy these spaces,” said Kalra. “It’s important to build skills that prepare you for that, and one of the biggest ones is learning how to civilly disagree and respect others’ opinions.”