Event Offers Group Discussion of Presidential Debate

by Kevin Cummings

Messenger Staff Writer

In Founder’s Hall at the Sewanee Inn, people munched on pan roasted chicken with lemon caper butter sauce as Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump tried to earn their vote for President.

Approximately 50 people who participated in the limited-seating DebateWatch event on Oct. 19 were primarily Sewanee students, but peppered throughout the crowd were professors, University employees and community members. This was the fourth DebateWatch, a group watch party co-sponsored by Sewanee’s Center for Speaking and Listening and Office of Civic Engagement, plus three student groups: No Labels, Sewanee College Republicans and Sewanee Democrats.

Sean O’Rourke, professor of rhetoric and director of the Center for Speaking and Listening, moderated the evening.

“Our effort with DebateWatch is to promote independent thought and expression, civic engagement, and political discussion and debate by listening closely to the debate and only the debate—no commentators saying who ‘won’ and who ‘lost,’ focusing our discussions around three or four questions, and sharing our thoughts in the larger open forum,” he said.

Following the final presidential debate, tables discussed various questions as a group and then individuals shared their views with the entire audience. The evening also featured instant polling using a Smartphone app called “Poll Everywhere.” Organizers showed the results on the big screen. The majority of those in attendance felt that Clinton presented herself better in the debate.

About 10 percent of pollsters said they had a more favorable view of Trump after the event, compared to about 48 percent who said they viewed Clinton more favorably after the debate. Approximately 55 percent of those polled said they had the same unfavorable view of Trump compared to 21 percent who held the same unfavorable view of Clinton after the debate.

Those who said they held the same favorable view of Trump post debate were at about 24 percent, while about 4 percent said the same of Clinton.

Sewanee’s Deb Dreves, a registered Republican who attended DebateWatch, said on Oct. 24 that she did not plan to vote for Trump.

“I really appreciated being part of the event—it gave me a hands-on feel for what was transpiring; it was helpful,” she said. “No surprises, but I did appreciate that there was one young man who spoke out on Donald Trump’s behalf. As a Republican this has been a divisive year—while I don’t agree with the young man’s sentiment, I am glad there are still some who believe the Republican Party is worth standing up for.”

On the question of which candidate offered a better vision of America, about 72 percent of those participating in the poll chose Clinton as opposed to nine percent for Trump, with the rest voting “even” or “neither.”

Some people in attendance said Clinton displayed a better depth of knowledge, but Trump was effective in using emotional responses and utilizing ambiguity.

J.D. Thompson, a Sewanee senior who donned a Trump T-shirt, said he was disappointed in the candidate’s performance.

“He has always done a better job of seeming more authentic,” Thompson said, “but at the same time he was much less articulate and didn’t make his points well. She obviously did a lot more prepping and did a better job executing. Her answers were obviously much more articulate, better prepared.”

Thompson also said that Clinton should have offered a defense when Trump accused her campaign of inciting violence at Trump rallies.

A number of people disagreed with Trump’s stand that he may not accept the results of the election. The primary tone of the evening among supporters of both candidates was civil and polite.

“In my view, our discussions went very well,” O’Rourke said. “One key test is whether participants can see past, or perhaps through, their own preferences and political biases to see what was said well or poorly, who answered questions well and who did not, who provided detail and evidence and who did not. I think the group did an especially good job.”

With cold cups of coffee and cheesecake crumbs littering the table, some attendees carried on their political discussions after the event.

Early voting continues until Nov. 3, Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Saturday, 8 a.m.–noon at the Franklin County Election Commission, 839 Dinah Shore Blvd., in Winchester. For more information on other counties and sample ballots, visit <tnsos.org/elections/election_commissions.php>.