(Sabrina Barnes)

Sabrina Barnes

Road to the election: thoughts on the presidential debates

October 2, 2020

The 2020 election is fast approaching, bringing a period of intense political focus to an already intense year. A cornerstone of every election cycle is the set of presidential debates, which offer the American people the opportunity to watch the campaigns of President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden go head-to-head over a series of debates running from Sept. 29 to Oct. 22. 

As this crucial period passes and the country draws nearer to an election that will have long-lasting ramifications on the future of the nation, The Evanstonian will be following the thoughts and opinions of ETHS as they grapple with and process the events of each debate.

First Presidential Debate

The first presidential debate took place on Sept. 29 at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. The 90-minute session, moderated by Fox News’ Chris Wallace, consisted of six 15-minute segments discussing Trump and Biden’s records, the Supreme Court, COVID-19, race and violence, election integrity and the economy. 

More than 74 million people viewed into the first debate, which was characterized by its uncontrollable, chaotic nature with Trump repeatedly interrupting and insulting both Biden and Wallace—a violation of the rules that both campaigns agreed to prior to the debate. Trump interrupted 71 times compared to Biden’s 22. Trump also leveled accusations and lies against Biden and refused to answer many of the questions posed to him. One glaring example of this was Trump’s failure to denounce white supremacist groups when prompted to do so by Wallace and even urging one such group to “stand back and stand by” before blaming the violence on the “radical left.” Other examples include Trump claiming that, because of his administration, insulin is “so cheap, it’s like water,” that he is responsible for the return of the NCAAs football season and that this year’s election results should be questioned, even calling on his supporters to be “poll watchers” on Election Day. Biden also refused to pull punches, calling Trump a “clown” and asking Trump “will you shut up, man?” 

Critical responses to the first debate have echoed the chaos of the debate itself, with media personalities like CNNs Jake Tapper calling it “a hot mess, inside a dumpster fire, inside a train wreck;” ABCs Martha Raddatz calling it “mud-wrestling” and former Democratic advisor and ABC anchor George Stephanopoulos saying that it was “the worst presidential debate I have ever seen in my life.” 

In The Evanstonian’s efforts to cover these debates, we will be following the voices of several students as Nov. 3 approaches. Following are excerpts from interviews with five students—seniors Gabe Karsh, Levi Rosing, Lara-Nour Walton and Jonathan Zenkich, and junior Mira Littmann—regarding their thoughts on the debate and on the election broadly. While none of these students are able to vote, their perspectives still offer insight into what ETHS students think of the election.


What were your first impressions while watching the debate?

Karsh: “I think Trump definitely won that debate. I don’t know if he won on an argumentative level, but, watching it, you get the sense that he was more with it than Biden. He was sharp, and he knew what he was talking about, even though he didn’t.”

Littmann:” Honestly it was really scary… As a young person and someone who’s growing up in America, this debate made me question my hope for the future…. It makes me really sad that the country I’m growing up in is so divided that debates have to be like this. Debates shouldn’t be people screaming at each other and making personal attacks. I feel like our country was supposed to be founded as this great democracy where everyone could have a say in politics, and this debate really didn’t reflect that.”

Rosing: “I think Biden won, but not in a traditional way…. Biden was debating, Trump was talking to Chris Wallace…. You can say Biden is the winner, and Trump is the loser, but the real loser is Chris Wallace, to the extent that he asked Trump if he wanted to change places.”

Walton: “If we are talking about winners and losers here, I think we can all come to the consensus that the debates last night did not yield a definitive victor. But, there was a clear loser: Trump. Trump is trailing in the polls and needed to use the debates to win the minds of undecided voters. While his presence was no doubt potent, he made no points to persuade those key voters to come out to the polls for him. Denying the efficacy of masks, appealing to white supremacists, targeting Hunter Biden’s addiction and acting like a belligerent child were bizarre and unpopular tactics on his part.”

Zenkich: “I’d say that my initial impression of the debate was not very good at all. I found the first segment to be very chaotic…. I definitely thought Biden had a better chance of winning… I really don’t have a favorable view of either of the candidates. I thought Biden had a pretty big edge because I think Trump had a bit of a stain on his reputation with COVID.”


What did you think about the candidates’ performances?

Karsh: “I did not expect Biden to be as incoherent as he was. I got what he was talking about, but he struggled to form sentences at times…. At least he wasn’t worse than what people [including Trump] were building him up to be. I also think there’s a tendency to paint Trump as an idiot, and he did not seem like an idiot at all. I don’t think he’s a genius, but I definitely didn’t get the impression that he was mentally incapacitated as some rumors say; there were points during his presidency where I believed that, but right now, I don’t believe that at all.” 

Littmann: “Biden won. When he was actually able to get a word in, he managed to convey his actual policy ideas and talk about where he wanted to take the country. He was able to clarify his differences from the rest of the Democratic party, not all of which I support, but which I think will be helpful in winning over moderate, undecided voters. Overall, he was pretty clear about what he would do as president and what he stands for. I think he did a great job of talking to the American people, not just responding to Trump.”

Rosing: “There were a couple of hiccups for Biden. He was obviously under tremendous stress, and luckily that didn’t upset the debate… It’s just a shame that Trump didn’t follow the rules…. And he still didn’t denounce white supremacy, that was the craziest part. In all of this racial upheaval, he still won’t do it.”

Walton: “Biden stared down the barrel of the camera when he made his points, giving folks at home the illusion that he was addressing us specifically. This was a good strategy. Next to the President, who never once looked at us and seemed to be more preoccupied with disparaging the [former] Vice President than providing voters with well thought out and factually sound answers; Biden seemed to be the candidate who cared most about actual Americans.”


Did your thoughts on the candidates change? Do you think the debates can change voter’s opinions on the candidates?

Karsh: “Most voters don’t think that the debates are going to change their minds, but I feel that perceptual dominance is important, and if Trump seems like he won the debate, that matters.”

Littmann: “As someone on the left side of the political spectrum, I was already planning on supporting Biden before the debate and not much could have changed that. I was horrified by Trump’s behavior, and I think Biden did a great job. However, a lot of right-wing people who I’ve talked to think that Trump’s behavior was totally acceptable, even admirable. They love his quick one-liners and find his insults entertaining and spot-on…. I don’t think a lot of voters have changed or made-up their minds after this debate.”

Rosing: “I don’t think the debate has done anything, and if the debate does nothing, it’s a win for Biden. The polls might go a little up and a little down, but eventually, they’ll just come back to the same place.”

Walton: “Nearly a million people have already voted, I wonder how important these debates are. Also, considering how polarized our country is, I can’t fathom how many people can seriously still be undecided.”

Zenkich: “My opinions on the candidates didn’t change. It kind of just reaffirmed what I thought. I think that Trump is a narcissist; he’s incapable of self-reflection. I think Biden is not in tip-top speaking shape, I think he’s a bit timid; that’s definitely how he came across to me in the debate… My view of the election only changed slightly, because I don’t think there was a real winner of the debate. I think that, overall, it was slightly better for Biden.”


What are your thoughts on the candidates generally?

Karsh: “I wish Biden was more of the radical left, but he’s not… I would vote for Biden over Trump in a heartbeat, but when [he said that there are a few bad apples]… That was the main-stream Republican position like four years ago.”

Walton: “In my opinion, one of the most important parts of being a president is giving hope to the people. We didn’t get that from Trump at all. In fact, I don’t think we learned anything about the president’s tentative plans for his second term. Trump was rightfully dragged through the mud over his poor handling of COVID-19, but rather than offering plans to remedy the public health situation and rebuild the economy, he stoked fears over socialism, ANTIFA and how our schools are indoctrinating the American youth to be ‘unpatriotic.’ He paints a very grim picture of the U.S. and tries to convince us that there is no light at the end of the tunnel without his guidance… when really, his (hopefully sooner rather than later) imminent succession would be the light at the end of the tunnel.”


What are your greatest fears moving forward?

Karsh: “My greatest fear is that Trump loses, definitely loses, but stays in power through the courts, through voter suppression or if he claims squatter’s rights in the White House. He said he wouldn’t trust the results.”

Littmann: “This debate made me a lot more nervous about our country’s future…. I’m feeling really scared for Nov. 3. I’m not 18, so I don’t have any say in what happens, and I feel really helpless. I’ve been reading the news every day and having conversations with family and friends about what’s going on in the country and there are so many things that need to be fixed about the way that we function. There’s such a big divide in our country right now, and there’s so much hate. I’m really nervous about where our country is going.”

Rosing: “People need to understand that [Trump is] the stage before fascism. Everything is on the line, everyone should be scared, and not enough people are. We know who this president is, and we know how much more he can do.”

Walton: “I’m scared about the future of this country. It is more important than ever to vote. If that wasn’t clear before, then it should be now.”


The vice presidential debate will take place on Wednesday, Oct. 7 in Salt Lake City, Utah. The second presidential debate will take place on Thursday, Oct. 15 in Miami, Fla.


Vice Presidential Debate

The only vice presidential debate of the 2020 presidential campaign took place on Oct. 8 at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. The 90-minute session was moderated by USA Today’s Susan Page and consisted of nine, 10-minute segments discussing a range of topics including COVID-19, the economy, the Supreme Court, foreign policy, healthcare, climate change, racism and policing. 

Upwards of 58 million Americans watched the debate, which maintained a rather calm tone throughout, especially when compared to the first presidential debate’s chaotic and abrasive nature. Despite this, neither candidate focused much on the questions being posed to them, preferring to either discuss the presidential candidates, each other or (at best) the issues being discussed more broadly than Page asked. This led to what many have characterized as a boring debate, a slice of normalcy in a year that refuses to fit any expectations. In fact, many found the only memorable thing about the debate was a fly that landed on Pence’s head for several minutes.

In The Evanstonian’s efforts to cover these debates, we will be following the voices of several students as Nov. 3 approaches. Following are excerpts from interviews with five students—seniors Gabe Karsh, Levi Rosing, Lara-Nour Walton and Jonathan Zenkich, and junior Mira Littmann—regarding their thoughts on the vice presidential debate. While none of these students are able to vote, their perspectives still offer insight into what ETHS students think of the election.


What were your initial reactions to the vice presidential debate?

Karsh: “I thought it was much better [than the first debate]. It was way more boring than the first one, but better it be boring than a chaotic mess.”

Rosing: “I loved it, but it was really boring also. Last week’s debate was so chaotic, but it was boring. This was boring. They were all really calm. Mike Pence was really boring, and I feel he just took Kamala down with him. I think they both did well though.”

Littmann: “A lot of Pence’s statements startled me and made me feel really scared, especially because I think he’s able to get a point across much better than Trump can. However, it was really frustrating for me to watch because both candidates kept avoiding questions and I don’t think that’s what a debate is supposed to be—I would have liked to hear their answers”

Walton: “Obviously this debate was less of a dumpster fire than the last.”

Zenkich: “My initial reactions were much better than they were than the first presidential debate. I thought it was more tolerable, understandable, substantive.”


How did this debate compare to the first one?

Karsh: “I think both of them lied, like last week, but that Pence was much better at lying than the other candidates including the president, and that this was much more civil and organized. Pence also got away with taking up a lot of time, the same as Trump.”

* Editor’s note: Pence spoke for a total of 36:27 and Harris for 36:24.

Rosing: “It was more civil, it was easier to watch, but last week’s debate was more exciting, even though it was awful to watch. It’s like a guilty pleasure, you want the debate to be crazy…. You can’t not watch Trump, even if you hate him.”

Littmann: “I thought it was much more civil than the presidential debate, but then again the bar wasn’t set very high. I think both candidates actually managed to get through more of their policy ideas, which can be a good or bad thing depending on who you look at.”

Walton: “The amount of misinformation being spewed out by Pence was almost more alarming than when Trump waxed rhapsodic about his “achievements” as president. When he said that the air and water were cleaner than ever recorded, his delivery was smug, almost convincing. Pence is dangerous because he has the composure and poise that Trump lacks. He could be persuasive for undecided voters.”

Zenkich: “Pence is a much more textbook politician. Harris is a bit sharper than Biden is. They didn’t really develop the habit of talking over each other in the beginning. The moderator was okay, but seems to have done better in this debate, just because she wasn’t dealing with Trump [like Chris Wallace was].”


What did you think about the candidates’ performances?

Karsh: “I thought that Kamala would have done better…. I expected her to push him a lot more than she did. People thought she was going to sweep the floor with him, which absolutely didn’t happen… Both of them were competent. However, Pence didn’t answer a single question for the entire debate, and it didn’t matter. He answered the questions he wished he were asked.”

Littmann: “I think both candidates did a good job of playing to their audiences. For example, Harris’s quick comebacks were a really big hit with her younger liberal audience and I saw a lot of Instagram posts praising her for that the next day. On the other hand, as much as I disagreed with him, I think Pence was really coherent and conveyed a lot of ideals that his audience will enjoy and praise him for.”

Rosing: “I thought Kamala would do better because she did so well in the primary debates. I thought she’d be super on the attack and aggressive, and she did that, but it was really calm compared to others. Pence, I was expecting what he did.”

Walton: “Harris was on her game. She ended having to spend chunks of her allotted time fact-checking Pence, which was not preferable, but when she had the liberty to speak, she stared at the viewers back home, never missing a chance to make searing indictments of the Trump administration. She really attacked the way COVID is being handled, which is exactly where she needed to focus. Compared to Pence, her arguments were a little more watertight. For example, Pence brought up H1N1 as proof that Biden wouldn’t be able to handle COVID, but that seemed a little out of touch with the current situation, and I don’t think it landed.”

Zenkich: “I think that Pence won slightly. I think that his answers were a bit more substantive than hers, that the points he had against her were stronger than what she had against him. He made the best out of a bad situation having to defend the president.”


What did the candidates do that shocked you? What should have been done differently?

Karsh: “I suspect that some of the advice Kamala got, and this might be totally wrong, is that you should be less aggressive. Just give your vision of the world, answer the questions and respond to what they say, but don’t be super pushy since that doesn’t come across well in non-white, male demographics…. I also don’t know what the reasoning is, but I think Biden and Harris just won’t bring up Merrick Garland. Pence pushed Harris on court-packing, and she’d never answered.”

Littmann: “I think a big takeaway that I actually heard people talking about was the fly that landed on Pence’s head during his speech. Although I do love laughing at the memes about this, I wish people would have listened to Pence’s actual words. While everyone was focused on the fly, Pence was talking about how systemic racism is not a problem in our country. I walked away from the debate feeling frustrated and angry that we’re still struggling with this problem…. that our country is in control of someone who doesn’t respect the rights of all people.”

Rosing: “Pence also really got her. Like when he asked her if she supports court-packing, she kind of like trailed off because it’s really, really controversial in the Democratic Party right now, and you don’t really want to say you do, but at the same time, you want to…. I think she kind of stayed away because it’s deliberately playing with fire.”

Walton: “Probably the most shocking moment to me was when Pence refused to acknowledge that our justice system was systemically racist…. [Overall,] both candidates were pretty evasive, but that’s nothing new in politics.”

Zenkich: “Pence completely shifted the window on COVID. He made it about the sacrifices Americans had already made, by doing that made Harris look like the villain. He knew what Kamala was going to say; she seems to have a reputation in the Democratic Party as a strong debater, but she really fumbled.”


Have your thoughts on the candidates changed?

Karsh: “I don’t think that like this has changed my mind in the slightest, but I do think that what Trump and Pence keep saying about how Biden is a Trojan horse for the radical left people, is more true than before, which I think is a good thing…. I have a lot more respect for Pence as an intellectual after this debate, but I still think he’s an evil, evil man.”

Littmann: “I wasn’t entirely surprised by Pence’s opinions, but they still scared me. I think the thing that really stood out to me the most was how he said that systemic racism doesn’t exist, and also that climate change should not be a priority. It didn’t really change my opinions about him, but mostly just reinforced in my mind how dangerous he is to the people of America.”

Rosing: “[Not really.] If I had to choose a Republican and it had to be Trump or Pence, I’d choose Pence…. And Kamala over Joe Biden.”

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