The first presidential debate drew significant interest on campus Monday night, with watch parties hosted by several organizations including the University of Michigan’s College Democrats and College Republicans chapters.
Political Science Prof. Robert Mickey hosted a viewing party in Angell Hall for his American Political Science class, and spoke afterward about how presidential debates usually don’t play a huge role in determining the outcome of the election. However, Mickey said this election cycle might be different.
“Debates don’t matter as much as we would think they do, but I think this is maybe a race that’s so strange that the past might not be a good guide,” Mickey said.
The debate focused on a wide range of topics, including national security, race relations and recent controversies surrounding both candidates’ experiences.
Throughout the debate, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton touted policies more than her opponent, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. Several issues received extended attention, including creating jobs, reforming criminal justice and earlier comments from Trump about President Barack Obama’s birthplace.
Early in the debate, Trump charged that Clinton supported policies that caused Americans to lose jobs to other countries, citing the North American Free Trade Agreement as one example and saying his plan would bring jobs back.
“The first thing you do is don’t let the jobs leave,” he said. “The companies are leaving. I could name, I mean, there are thousands of them. They’re leaving, and they’re leaving in bigger numbers than ever.”
In response, Clinton charged that Trump’s plan was not practical and would increase the national deficit.
“Independent experts have looked at what I’ve proposed and looked at what Donald’s proposed,” she said. “And basically they’ve said this, that if his tax plan, which would blow up the debt by over $5 trillion and would in some instances disadvantage middle-class families compared to the wealthy, were to go into effect, we would lose 3.5 million jobs”
Speaking to the criminal justice system, Clinton stressed the necessity of working to remove racial biases in dialogues and the justice system. Trump, in contrast, repeatedly emphasized the need for “law and order” and praised “stop and frisk” policies which were banned in New York in part due to claims of racial discrimination.
Clinton was the only candidate to bring up the issue of higher education reform and college debt, briefly calling for debt-free higher education reform and allowing students to refinance their existing loans at lower rates.
Mickey said compared to presidential debates from the 1980s to now, he was shocked by how argumentative this one was.
“This was nuts compared to all of those — so much more combative, interrupting and crazy,” Mickey said early on. “I can’t believe we have another three hours.”
Several specific moments throughout the debate drew big reactions from the studio audience and were noticeably heated, including a discussion over Trump’s previous comments about Obama’s birthplace. Though Obama produced his birth certificate several years ago, Trump has raised questions about the president’s place of birth as recently as January.
In response to a question from moderator and NBC Nightly News host Lester Holt about the comments, Trump said he had not started the conversation around Obama’s birthplace, instead saying Clinton’s team had during the 2008 election. Rather, he said, he had finished the debate around it. This claim, which Trump has said several times on the campaign trail, has been rated as false by multiple fact-checking organizations.
“I think I did a great job and a great service not only for the country but even for the president in getting him to produce his birth certificate,” Trump said.
Speaking directly afterward, Clinton pressed Trump on his recent comments about Obama’s place of birth, calling the idea that the president wasn’t born in the U.S. a racist lie.
“The birther lie was a very hurtful one,” she said. “And you know, Barack Obama is a man of great dignity. And I could tell how much it bothered him and annoyed him.”
In terms of the candidates’ performances, Mickey said Clinton performed pretty much as expected. However, he said Trump’s performance and outspoken demeanor on the national stage somewhat surprised him.
“I thought Trump was going to have more self-control than he displayed. I thought he was going to be more relaxed and even-keeled,” Mickey said.
On Twitter, The Michigan Daily hosted a series of informal polls throughout the debate, open to anyone with a Twitter account. Respondents overwhelmingly responded saying they believed Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton had won the debate.
Along with nonpartisan viewing parties, the debate also sparked significant interest from students across the political spectrum on campus.
Roughly 300 students attended a presidential debate watch party in Angell Hall sponsored by Fox News, along with the Young Americans for Freedom, College Republicans, The Michigan Review and Young Americans for Liberty, who were coordinators of the event.
LSA senior Grant Strobl, chairman of the University’s Young Americans for Freedom chapter, said groups from all ends of the political spectrum were invited to the viewing party to foster a bipartisan environment, adding that an invitation was extended to the College Democrats, though they respectfully declined
“It’s OK to listen to other viewpoints and listen to them respectfully,” Strobl said. “We’re all fellow Wolverines — we can disagree sometimes and sometimes disagreeing isn’t easy, but in order to learn it’s necessary.”
In the midst of the viewing party, a group of about 10 protesters entered the room, banging on drums and cymbals. The motivation of the protest was unclear.
LSA senior Nick Murray was in the room to witness the protest, but said he was also involved in a physical altercation with protesters in the hall outside of the viewing.
“They were throwing cymbals, making noise, one of them threw a cymbal on the ground and I picked it up. I came outside and they followed me,” Murray said.
Strobl said he was disappointed that some students felt the need protest in such a disruptive manner.
“Students have the right to listen to freedom of speech as projected on the screen,” Strobl said. “I respect a student’s right to protest, but disrupting other people’s right to listen to the views of our two presidential candidates is not OK.”
LSA senior Casey VanderWeide, a member of the College Republicans, said a presidential debate in this election cycle could finally allow voters to see the candidates in a new and more raw light.
“I think especially with these two candidates who are so polarizing, these debates will actually show people some substance,” VanderWeide said. “We haven’t really been seeing that a lot and with the news coverage it’s just been back and forth with bad characteristics.”
Citing a poll that was conducted among the audience before the debate, Strobl said most students at the debate watch party originally believed Trump would win, but by the end of the debate it seemed as if Clinton had the slight advantage.
Engineering junior Alex Knecht said he expected Trump to perform better, but believed Clinton had won by the end.
“Trump was definitely more aggressive, but I think Clinton ended up winning the debate,” Knecht said. “Trump was kind of just echoing what Hillary was saying and I don’t think (Trump) enforced his points well enough.”
The College Democrats and Students for Hillary also held a watch party, drawing so many students that Weill Hall ran out of chairs. Throughout the debate, students in the room cheered at various statements by Clinton and booed at statements from Trump.
College Democrats Chair Collin Kelly, an LSA junior, said he hoped the watch party would increase enthusiasm for the Clinton campaign and encourage the student vote.
“We just wanted to make sure that students learn that this is the best place to get together to learn — as we all obviously saw — why Hillary Clinton is the best choice to lead our country as the next president,” he said. “We wanted to make sure that students were energized and could be mobilized to get out to vote in such strong numbers, because as we all know when students vote, Democrats win.”
On campus, the first Michigan Daily election survey last week showed that an overwhelming majority of a sample of students supported Clinton.
Prior to the start of the debate, students shared what they believed were the most important issues, citing immigration, higher education reform, health care and race relations.
Engineering freshman Kelsey Toporski said she hoped the candidates would discuss immigration policy because she comes from a town near the Southern border of the United States and has seen the effects of policy on the lives of immigrants firsthand.
“We come from a small town and there is a lot of Mexican families,” she said. “And I know that if something happens then their families could be torn apart, and I don’t want any of that to happen to my friends.”
Following the debate, students at the watch party overwhelmingly felt that Clinton had won the debate. However, students had mixed reactions about the implications of it on the election as a whole.
LSA junior Brendan Schroder said he is afraid Trump may succeed in winning the White House if he continues to receive support after the debate.
“My heart rate over the whole debate because of Donald Trump was over 100 beats per minute,” he said. “I was that stressed out. I just couldn’t take it … This election could be heading in a direction where Trump could be the president.”