WINCHESTER — Local Democrats, Republicans and independents found some common ground after Tuesday night’s presidential debate between President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden: They agreed it was a mess.
The debate, moderated by Fox News’ Chris Wallace, was filled with interruptions and frequently turned into a shouting match — sometimes with Wallace doing the shouting.
At Shenandoah University, a small group of students gathered for a debate-watching party in Stimpson Auditorium. They said afterward they felt the debate, which was the first between Trump and Biden, lacked substance.
“I feel like neither one gave an absolute stellar performance,” said sophomore Caitlyn Graulau, who considers herself a moderate with a political ideology that aligns more with liberals. “If I really had to pick [a winner], I’d say Biden because he kept his composure more so.”
She added that the exchange between the two candidates will probably do little to change the minds of voters “due to how chaotic it was.”
But she hopes both candidates urge voters to relax and respect each other, and she expressed concern about there being a lot of contention over the outcome of the Nov. 3 election.
Paul McCoy, an SU junior who said he will more likely vote for Trump, pretty much called the debate a disaster.
Sophomore Logan Piotter and junior Nataliya Krio felt the candidates weren’t able to adequately discuss their policies due to the constant arguing.
“My concern with Joe Biden is that he’s a bit of a pushover and that could be a bad thing in terms of a president dealing with other powerful people who may take advantage of him,” Piotter said. “With Trump, the biggest problem with him is he’s not very emotional. Joe Biden was able to get more emotion in what he was saying, a little more relatability. Trump didn’t necessarily have that.”
Graduate student Renee Berg said she doesn’t follow politics too closely, which is why she wanted to watch the debate. After seeing it, she’s not feeling super strong about either candidate.
“I wish they went more into what they want to do if they win and where they stand on certain issues instead of attacking each other or why the other guy isn’t good,” Berg said. “That’s what I was looking more for. I do think that Biden did better this time. I feel like Trump kind of underestimated him. Everybody calls him ‘Sleepy Joe’ and talks about his memory not being good, but I think he held it together well. He didn’t let Trump get him riled up as much as people expected. He did pretty well and was able to come up with good responses.”
Michael Romano, associate professor of political science at SU, said the debate-watching party was held to try to get students more interested and engaged in the political process. While some students are politically active, he said others are still developing their political views. Many of them will vote for the first time in the upcoming election.
“In terms of just speaking as a debater, Biden did a better job because he tried to stick to the standard debate style lessons that you learn,” Romano said. “He spoke out to the audience, looked at the camera. He tried to engage with the questions and tried to engage directly with the questions both by the moderator.”
Romano said while Wallace tried to rein in the debate as a moderator, he ultimately was unable to do so, with Trump repeatedly interrupting Biden.
“Trump’s debate style has always been kind of a bully pulpit,” Romano said. “And that’s what he did and by those measures he debated exactly the way that he wanted to. He used pretty well-known tactics to get out of situations that he wasn’t comfortable with debating. He deflected the question about condemning white supremacists for example.”
Romano said debates usually don’t do much to persuade voters, noting they are more effective at temporarily mobilizing a party’s base. But, he added, it’s unknown what impact the debates may have this year because early voting is already underway in numerous states, including Virginia.
Wednesday afternoon on Winchester’s Loudoun Street Mall, people interviewed about the debate were mostly unsatisfied by what they saw.
Frederick County resident Lynne Collins, who is a Trump supporter, felt the debate “could have gone better.” She would have preferred if Trump spent more time talking about his accomplishments than talking over Biden.
“Because I would have liked for [Biden] to talk so that he could do himself in,” Collins said. “That’s just the way I felt.”
While Collins doesn’t like Trump’s aggressive personality, she feels conservative voters have no other choice in November. She compared Trump to chemotherapy, saying that while she considers his presidency ultimately good for the country, there are “some side effects.”
She thinks Biden will be controlled by more left-wing Democrats if he is elected.
“In my opinion, I don’t think it’s going to be Trump versus Biden,” Collins said. “I think it’s going to be Trump versus [Kamala] Harris, because Joe Biden, if you are honest with yourself, you know Joe Biden is not going to be our president. He’s not. He’s just a puppet. I used to like Biden back in the day when he was more moderate, but he doesn’t have that option anymore.”
Winchester resident David Carter, who voted for Trump in 2016 because he disliked Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton, said he really disliked Trump’s attacks on Biden’s son, Hunter, feeling Trump “shouldn’t have gone down that road.”
“I think Biden did a better job than Trump,” Carter said. “Trump tends to be kind of sarcastic and petty with some of his remarks, which I don’t think is very presidential. He also went right to the family issue that I don’t think Biden would have done unless Trump opened that gate.”
Carter also feels Trump’s push to reopen businesses amid the COVID-19 pandemic may have been premature. He described himself as politically independent and said he hasn’t committed to voting for either candidate yet, though at this point he is more prone to vote for Biden.
A married couple from Annapolis, Maryland, said they will not watch the next presidential debate unless the moderator has the ability to turn off microphones to prevent interruptions.
The next presidential debate is scheduled for 9 p.m. Oct. 15.
Romano said the debate between vice presidential candidates Kamala Harris and Mike Pence, set for 9 p.m. Oct. 7, should be a different experience for viewers.
“Mike Pence has always shown himself to be someone who is ideologically very kind of strongly conservative and evangelical in many respects, with all of his rhetoric and speech,” Romano said. “But he’s always shown himself to be far more civil. And Kamala Harris is well-known for her debate style. It’s very prosecutorial. It harkens back to her time as a district attorney. And so a match up between those two is going to follow that structure much more firmly. It’s going to be reminiscent of what people kind of expect a debate to be like.”