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The Presidential Debates: Helpful or Just a Waste of Time?

by Angelie Rodriguez

Four years ago in 2016, Hillary Clinton and President Donald Trump faced off in the three presidential debates that ultimately gave voters the answers they needed as to who they would vote for. Back then, it was organized, and was civilized to the extent that there wasn’t meaningless arguing between the two politicians. Donald Trump actually seemed to have a filter, and Hillary Clinton answered him respectfully. It was a rich debate with disagreements, and relevant discussion.

Now we are in 2020, four years later, where Americans are casting their ballots once again, voting on who will be their leader for the next four years. The candidates? Joe Biden, and once again, Donald Trump. Americans were expecting this—the final two presidential nominees competing for that seat in the White House—but what they weren’t expecting was the absolute chaos that broke loose as Election Day neared.

The debates, which are designed to give Americans an idea of what each of the two candidates had to offer, turned into a discord of insults and disarray. Instead of debating like normal politicians, the two men took the opportunity to speak over each other, and disrespect each other to the point where the first debate couldn’t even be classified as a debate anymore.

To put it simply, the first debate, which took place at the Samson Pavilion of the Health Education Campus in Cleveland, Ohio on September 29, is widely viewed as a historic failure. There was no structure, the moderator did not do a notable job at putting his foot down, and the majority of the questions posed were unanswered because they were overtaken by vile insults.

The New York Times article “Six Takeaways from the First Presidential Debate” sums it up perfectly stating that it was not exactly a debate: “Shouting, interruptions and often incoherent cross talk filled the air as Mr. Trump purposefully and repeatedly heckled and blurted over his rival and the moderator alike in a 90-minute melee... Mr. Biden labored to get his points in over Mr. Trump’s stream of interjections, turning directly to the camera for refuge from a scrum that hardly represented a contest of ideas.”

As Trump and Biden quarrelled, Americans took to social media to express their utter displeasure and annoyance stating “It’s like an old person and a drunk person fighting in a Denny’s” and “This is like watching a TikTok duet from hell” and “I would give anything to watch a commercial right now.” The first presidential debate, which was supposed to lead the way for the other two that would follow, ended up making a bad first impression. People no longer anticipated the debates, but rather, hoped that the two remaining ones would just come and go, fearing that they would have to sit through what they did in the first one... and for good reason.

“The first debate was pure havoc, obvious in the demeanor, attitude, and the narratives presented by both candidates. I found it nearly impossible to imagine the second debate going any better," 10th grader Ruby Arthur said.

10th grade history teacher Yolanda Betances, shared a similar viewpoint, “For me, the first presidential debate only served to reaffirm how this presidency lacked civility and a full commitment to democratic debate. It looked like a forum for frustration, personal attacks, and misinformation at times. There were several lies told by Mr. Trump and no acknowledgement of the systemic racism that exists in the United States. Joe Biden had shared his belief in Black Lives Matter and in the denunciation of all white supremacy. Thus, this served to, again, reaffirm who I would be supporting Election 2020.”

The first presidential debate made it clear that this election was not going to be anything like the previous ones, and that if things continued in the same fashion, the debates would not fulfill their purpose of being informational and persuasive, but instead be looked at as a means of entertainment.

On October 2nd, Donald Trump revealed that he and his wife Melania Trump tested positive for Coronavirus. This was not entirely unexpected, considering his refusal to wear a mask or abide to social distancing protocols. Nonetheless, receiving around the clock care from doctors and being given medications that the rest of Americans probably don’t have access to, he was able to leave the hospital after three days, and go back to his regular duties as president.

However, he was still contagious, and it was unknown whether he would be able to attend the second presidential debate that was planned to take place in Miami, Florida. Even though Trump kept insisting that he was able to participate in the face-off, his condition said otherwise, and out of concern for public health, the decision was then made for the debate to go virtual. This plan was booted out though, with Trump refusing to have a virtual debate. The two candidates instead had townhalls in which they discussed their policies and opinions on matters of importance in the United States. The candidates would then be set to clash again in the final presidential debate, which would take place in Nashville, Tennessee.

In all honesty, the public was pretty concerned about this last presidential debate. They prayed that this time, they would be able to actually get some context as to what each candidate had to offer. And luckily, with new regulations put in place, such as the most requested mute button, which muted candidates when they spoke over their allotted time, their prayers were heard. The final presidential debate, going much smoother and being more civilized than the last one, gave voters the opportunity to hear the differences between each candidate, and listen without being overwhelmed with irritation and rising anxiety.

The New York Times article titled “Six Takeaways from the Final Presidential Debate” states, “President Trump and former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. engaged in more than 90 minutes of actual debate on Thursday. It was civil, calm, sedate, substantive (at times) and, almost, even normal.” The president for once didn’t get too caught up in his insensitive and offensive remarks, and actually maintained a composed exterior. Biden similarly, refrained from giving into Donald Trump’s remarks and instead remained on topic with the questions that were posed. The media showed a better reaction to this debate, and so did the general public, but some still had such a strong imprint from the first one, that it was difficult to think any better of the final one.

Thank goodness the producers of the debate allowed mics to be cut during the last debate to try and enforce the rules, but it's ridiculous that had to be put in place!” 10th grade English teacher Miyo Tubridy said. “I only watched parts of the final presidential debate. I initially planned on watching all of them, as I usually do, but it was clear after the first one that these debates were not going to be meaningful in terms of discussing the candidates' platforms.” To some people, even though the debate was obviously a little more structured than the last one, it didn’t make it any less frustrating to watch.

“The final presidential debate ran much more smoothly than the first, which in all honesty made it quite boring...the debate could hardly have been seen as a victory for Trump; What I found truly frustrating, however, was Biden's inability to properly refute Trump's points. I would say if the final debate solidified anything in my mind, it was the knowledge that Biden is unwilling to commit to fully opposing fascism because that would require him to dismantle a system that put him in power,” 10th grader Lila Katch said. Even though there was way more relevant content in the final debate, there were still negative things that could be said about each candidate and about how each one responded to controversial issues.

That brings the question, did the debates really help people at all? Did they do a good job of helping undecided voters make the decision of who they would be supporting in the 2020 election? Or did the minds of the American people that were already set make the debates not really useful at all?

Ruby Arthur said, “Many voters went blue solely to avoid another four years of Trump. He’s made his priorities abundantly clear, and in doing so he’s lost his shot at re election. The debates may have changed some minds, but less about which candidate and more about whether they were going to vote this year.”

The coronavirus pandemic has affected a lot of people’s choices on who they would want to lead their country for the next four years. It has come down to the question of who will handle the situation better, and who will mend the deep tear of division that is ever present in the United States. And for many people, that is what their decisions were based on. Many voters were already decided before the first presidential debate because of how Donald Trump has handled the pandemic, whether they supported it or not.

Yolanda said, “I think there were voters who were not undecided by the time this first presidential debate took place. This has been as a result of the Trump presidency and has only widened under the pandemic of 2020. Too much has happened and with the loss of thousands of American lives.” Despite this however, some voters have still chosen to believe lies over facts which is a big result of the brainwashing and indoctrination that Trump has led during his reign as president. Because of this, some people believe that the debates weren’t really reliable to begin with. The continuous lies being said by both candidates even though mainly spat out by Donald Trump, could give the wrong idea to an undecided voter.

Lila Katch elaborates on this idea saying “I honestly can't say I believe that debates help people decide how to vote. If they do that's a scary reality. With all the lying I saw in both debates and the lack of fact-checking, I fear an uninformed voter watching the debate would adopt a much different lense of the world than is actually reality. The uninformed voter sees Trump as for the economy, and Biden for health, without the proper knowledge of how COVID will continue to affect the economy until it is under control, or how economic inequality has worsened over Trump.”

She continues to say, “At the end of the day, I don't think anyone's minds were changed by the debate, or at least very few. Trump has become such a divisive political figure it seems that since he's taken office everyone has had an opinion and stuck to it. Trump had extremely stable polls for three years, despite the numerous scandals and hearings during that time. Of course, there must be people out there who have remained neutral, but I don't think those are the type of people to watch a presidential debate.”

The presidential debates have further emphasized the fact that this election is one that no one has really seen before and that Trump’s words have left such an impression on people’s minds, that in reality the debates were no help at all. For many voters, it just came down to ‘Do we continue under Trump who will advance our economy?’or ‘Should we go with a safe democrat that will get the coronavirus pandemic under control?'. These questions alone were simple enough for voters to decide which candidate they would go with, way before the first debate even happened.

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