Debating the Presidential Debate Without Talking Heads
Following the first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, viewers at a Baruch College event traded media commentary for nuanced discussion.
At the conclusion of the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, the large screens at a crowded Baruch College debate-viewing went dark.
The only opinions and commentary heard for the next hour would come from those who had gathered to watch the event at Baruch’s Performing Arts Center, filling both a large recital hall and an overflow room, and from a smattering of social media users.
The silencing of post-debate punditry was deliberate. David Birdsell, dean of Baruch’s Marxe School of Public and International Affairs and an expert on political debates, is an advocate for turning off TV and trading in the spin room for in-person discussion—both as a way to process points made and to encourage civil dialogue. This is the fourth presidential election cycle in which Baruch has fostered this type of interaction.
Before the debate, I spoke with Birdsell—who offered a formal response at the Rethinking Debates mini-conference to Civic Hall’s recently released report on debates and civic engagement—about ways to increase the public’s involvement in election debates and the political process. For all the different engagement modalities made possible by technology and social media, creating communal spaces for an exchange of ideas, he said, remains “the gold standard.”
“Studies show very clearly that people who participate in face-to-face discussions about debates can consolidate and own their opinion of what happens in the debate if they aren’t watching media sources producing their own language,” Birdsell said.
While the majority of viewers who filled the hall were students and alumni, Baruch opens its election-related events to the public, inviting a conversation among people of diverse ages and experiences. The event was livestreamed, and organizers kept an eye on social media, looping in comments with the hashtag #BaruchVote16.
This year, for the first time, organizers turned the debate into a participatory experience using the viewer reaction tool Microsoft Pulse. James Weirich, an instructional technologist who worked with Baruch College Survey Research to set up survey questions about voter preferences before and after the debate, explained to the audience how to access a customized Microsoft Pulse URL.
Users were asked to input demographic and voter information. During the debate, they could select “oppose” or “favor” as frequently as every five seconds to indicate their level of agreement with what the candidates were saying. Birdsell said the data would be used later to discuss with students why some of the candidates’ ideas are particularly popular or unpopular, and to study how the debate influenced viewers’ attitudes toward the candidates.
The immediate reactions were not shown live. “There is a sort of follow-the-crowd impulse that many of us feel,” Birdsell mentioned during our earlier conversation. “If you’re thinking, ‘Hey, that’s a great point,’ but you see everybody’s going, ‘I hate that,’ or vice versa, you may not be so inclined to reward the candidate with your favorable feelings because you see other people are feeling more negatively. I think that it can feed the massification of crowd response in ways that trample individual deliberation and sober solo judgment.”
Faculty members get involved with each debate, too, both as audience members and as in-house experts. For this first debate, Janet Streicher and Micheline Blum, both of Baruch College Survey Research, Sarah Bishop, an assistant professor of communications, and David Jones, chair of the political science department, joined Birdsell (below, second from right) in answering questions. A parallel conversation took place in the overflow room, with a different set of faculty members leading a separate discussion.
Loud applause, gut-busting laughs, and collective gasps punctuated the debate. There were audible “boos” when former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani was mentioned, and groans any time Trump referenced his properties or investments as a tangent to another point. The most applause for Clinton, among an audience that strongly favored the Democratic candidate, was when she spoke about fairness in the criminal justice system.
The conversation afterward was more subdued. About half of the audience stayed until 11:30 p.m. Speakers were encouraged to identify themselves. Many comments focused on the debate process, including the role of the moderator, Lester Holt.
Holt acted like a parent who can’t control his unruly kids, said an audience member.
“So you thought moderation was weak, but equally weak,” said Birdsell, inviting more reactions.
Jones asked if anyone changed their mind about who they would be voting for. A few hands went up. An alumnus who described himself as a Bernie Sanders fan said Trump’s behavior “pushed me to Clinton.” Others agreed.
They discussed how the candidates would come across if the volume were turned off and came to the same conclusion as a New York Times reporter who watched the debate with the sound muted: Clinton was more composed, more presidential.
They wondered how it’s possible to compare candidates who are so different in their approach to just about everything. And they questioned whether either candidate was truly speaking to them.
One student said she thought Clinton had finally proven herself “relatable” to younger voters, adding that the candidate’s appearance on “Between Two Ferns” had also helped. A student who identified himself as a Marine Corp veteran said the debate affirmed his support for Clinton. She had shown preparedness, he said—a trait leaders should have.
Jones noted that Clinton was trying to broaden her reach to Sanders’ supporters, while Trump was taking the classic campaign position of the party not in power: Things are going badly (sad!), and we need change (make American great again!).
The Republican candidate’s points were welcomed by Michael Kay, 28, and his brother, Matthew, 31, both graduates of Baruch who showed up wearing pro-Trump hats and t-shirts.
“I thought [watching with a group] would be an interesting experience,” said Michael, who raised his hand to speak several times. His opinion of the candidates had remained unchanged at the end of the debate.
In response to an alumnus from Haiti who was frustrated that neither Clinton nor Trump explained how they would get things done, Birdsell said the debates allow a “preciously small amount of time” to discuss details, and voters need to look elsewhere—including to the candidates’ websites—for policy specifics.
The conversation also touched on issues of race. A first-year student, commenting on the housing discrimination suit against Trump and her doubt that she would have been able to rent one of his apartments, said the debate “made me feel uncomfortable in my own skin.”
A woman originally from Chile noted that the language Trump uses is what is heard on the street every day. A young black woman agreed with Trump’s assertion that Democrats take African American voters for granted.
Bishop said it was important for viewers to consider what they didn’t hear during the debate, and to note the implication behind some statements. Trump announcing he was endorsed by “ICE”—Immigration and Customs Enforcement (he was actually endorsed by its workers union, not the agency itself)—raises more systemic issues about the U.S. prison system.
Close to midnight, a few political conversations continued on the sidewalk outside the Performing Arts Center.
“When I went in, I didn’t trust Hillary,” said Alan Stewart, 62, a 2013 Baruch graduate who said he’s now likely to vote for her, though he would still prefer Joe Biden or Sanders at the top of the ticket. He said he appreciated hearing views during the post-debate forum that hadn’t been “contaminated” by the news media.
Prior to the debate, Tamara Draut, vice president of policy and research at Demos, and Douglas Besharov, a professor at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy, fielded questions from Birdsell about the election, the economy, and job creation.
“This election proves the rest of them weren’t as high stakes as we thought they were at the time,” Draut said in her closing remarks. She noted that regardless of who wins, the country will have to be “very deliberate about engaging in conversation that repairs the racial divide.”
The next public event at Baruch College is the vice-presidential debate on Oct. 4. For more information, visit baruch.cuny.edu/election2016.