Presidential debates offer voters much to consider this election



Chris Deucher

The trio of 2016 presidential debates—along with the single vice-presidential debate—was a monumental event in terms of political debates.  With an estimated 84 million viewers, according to Nielson TV ratings, the first face-off between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton ranks as the most-watched presidential debate in history.  According to Twitter, it was the “most tweeted debate ever.” Despite the ubiquitous nature of the debates, however, it is unclear how much they truly affected the election.  

For uncommitted viewers, the debates may have had a substantial consequence. “Actually, watching the debates did alter my opinion of who I am going to vote for,” senior Gina Finelli said. “I saw a different side of the candidates in their debates compared to social media or news coverage.”  However, for staunch Clinton or Trump supporters, the dialogues rarely altered their views.  Professor Brian Satterfield, who teaches ACS and political science and moderates the Ryan Center, stated in an email, “The only actual question [regarding the debates] is whether a candidate can move the poll numbers, and it doesn’t look as though the debates had any real effect there.”   

According to Real Clear Politics, the poll numbers the day before the first debate—Sept. 25—favored Clinton’s 46.5 percentage points to Trump’s 43.4 by a 3.1 points spread.  As of Oct. 29, Clinton leads the polls with 47.6 percentage points—leading Trump’s 43.3 by 4.3 points.  Though Clinton rose by 1.2 percentage points, this number is in the margin of error realm and varying contributing factors, other than the debates, have influenced responses.  Consequently, it is uncertain how much of an effect the debates—by themselves—have reformed voters’ mindsets.

 Trump’s goal in the debates was to persuade the voters on the fence to vote for him.  In order to accomplish this, he would have to establish himself as a candidate fit for office.  However, Satterfield thought, “He went full Trump—which seems to have been enjoyed by those who were already voting for him, but didn’t accomplish what he really needed which was to win over some of those who were hesitating but might conceivably vote for him.”

In order for Clinton to deem the debates successful, she would have to discredit Trump as a candidate apt for the Oval Office and bolster her trustworthiness image. “Hillary was over prepared, over scripted, artificial in her movements, the awkward smiling and laughter, and seems to have adopted a strategy of making no errors and running out the clock,” Satterfield said.  Despite this, the general consensus is that politically experienced Clinton won the debates.  According to CNN/ORC polls based on debate viewers, Clinton was victorious in each debate.  As reported by the responses, 62, 57 and 52 percent of the participants thought Clinton won each debate, respectively.   

Although the debates clinched the top spot of the most-viewed presidential debates, some would argue that it was the least-presidential debate.  “I watched the debates and I thought they were the least presidential” Finelli said. “They [were] not respectable, they were not professional, and I did not feel like I was watching presidential candidates at all.”

Numerous statements made by the candidates left a portion of spectators clouded with concerns regarding their validity.  Secretary Clinton attempted to back up her claims through her online fact-checker, which she encouraged all viewers to implement throughout the debate.  “I hope the fact-checkers are turning up the volume and really working hard” Clinton stated. “Please, fact-checkers, get to work.”  The former Secretary of State converted her campaign website into a live fact-checking machine.  It provided citizens with the exact words of her rival; the site was titled “Literally Trump.”  According to Issie Lapowsky, a writer for Wired, “Nearly two million people visited Clinton’s website within an hour after she mentioned it.” 

However, this was not the only fact-checker used by constituents.  Chris Revilla, a freshman political science major, stated, “Hillary lied when she said we were an energy independent country.”  This student’s statement is verified by PolitiFact staffer Lauren Carrol who wrote, “The United States imports more energy than it exports.”  Thus, it is apparent that both candidates were stating incorrect assertions.

On the other side of the stage, Trump often attempted to diminish his opponent’s accusations through a single word: “wrong.”  Additionally, Trump placed—and continues to place—tremendous importance on his social media status as a means of campaigning.  When asked about this in a debate, he stated, “Tweeting happens to be a modern-day form of communication.”

Going forward, the most important question in the eyes of Satterfield—and an enormous portion of the nation—is whether the mainstream polls that have Clinton leading prove to be accurate come November 8th.  “Is there a hidden Trump vote?” questions Satterfield. “Trump’s supporters point to an enthusiasm gap, but whether that translates to a hidden Trump vote or not [is indeterminate at this point.]”  Only time will tell the outcome of this tumultuous election.  

The first presidential debate was held on Monday, Sept. 26 at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.  It was moderated by Lester Holt.  The debate format consisted of six separate fifteen minute segments—highlighting “America’s Direction,” “Achieving Prosperity” and “Securing America.” 

Some of the comments made throughout the debates required the viewer to do a double-take.  The initial debate—along with the attitude of the other debates—can be summed up in the following exchange between the candidates.  Clinton joked, “I have a feeling that by the end of this evening, I’m going to be blamed for everything that’s ever happened.”  The real-estate billionaire shot back, “Why not?” 

One issue brought up was that of race relations.  Clinton stated that race is still “a significant challenge” in the United States, especially due to the criminal justice system treating different races dissimilar ways.  On the contrary, Trump accused Clinton of not using the phrase “law and order,” and he reiterated his support of the stop-and-frisk police policy.

Another significant portion of the debate was dedicated to the economy.  Clinton charged Trumps fiscal strategy as “trumped-up trickle-down economics.  She also accused Trump of pursuing his own class’ financial interest.  In response, Trump stated that his plan would create substantial job growth and the country must renegotiate its trade deals since “our jobs are fleeing the country.”


The one and only vice-presidential debate—between Clinton’s running mate, Tim Kane and Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence—was held on Tuesday, Oct. 4 at Longwood University in Farmville, Va.  It was moderated by Elaine Quijano.  The dialogue was comprised of nine segments of about ten minutes each, highlighting the country’s relationship with Russia, abortion and law enforcement.

“From the very beginning, Pence was the more comfortable of the two men on the debate stage,” wrote Chris Cilliza from the Washington Post. “Pence repetitively turned to the camera when he answered questions, making it clear he understood that the real audience wasn’t in the room but watching on TV.”

For the majority of the debate, Pence was parrying off Kaine’s attack on Trump.  He did so with a calm and composed attitude.  It is apparent that Pence is the more mainstream, conventional Republican on the ticket.  Additionally, his performance seemed to suggest a future presidential bid for himself.

Though some view Pence as successfully defending his running mate from Democratic attacks, others view his dialogue as blatantly ignoring the facts.  Sally Kohn, writing for CNN, sided with Kaine as the winner, stating “Pence acted like Kaine was not only making [Trump’s comments] up but, in so doing, actually perpetrating a campaing of insults simply by repeating the things that Donald Trump has said yet Mike Pence refused to acknowledge.”


The second presidential debate was held on Sunday, Oct. 9 at Washington University in Saint Louis.  It was moderated by Martha Raddatz and Anderson Cooper.  Differing from the other formats, the second presidential debate was a town hall style. Half of the questions were asked by the moderators—which reflected topics of public interest found in social media.  The other half was posed directly from uncommitted voters on the stage.

Politics was taken to a new low during this debate, starting with the opponents not shaking hands.  Trump stated that Clinton has “tremendous hate in her heart.”  Additionally, when Clinton commented that it was a good thing Trump is not in charge of the laws and justice in this country, he responded by stating, “because you’d be in jail.”  In response to her adversary’s austere comments, Clinton claimed a “when they go low, you go high” mentality, which was adopted from Michelle Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention.

The policy issues seemed to be eclipsed by the revelation of a bus video of Trump making lewd comments about women.  He apologized for his past words, and regarded them as “locker room talk.”  Trump claimed his “words” failed to compare to Mr. Clinton’s actions: “If you look at Bill Clinton, far worse.”

There also appeared to be a hiccup between Trump and his running mate, Mike Pence.  When questioned about his running mate’s position, the Republican candidate responded, “Mike Pence and I haven’t spoken [about Syria] and I disagree.”

Despite the austere bickering between the candidates, the debate ended on a more humane note; responding to a question from the audience, Clinton said she admired Trump’s children while Trump complimented his opponent’s never-give-up mentality.


The third—and final—presidential debate was held on Wednesday, Oct. 19 at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.  It was moderated by Chris Wallace.  The format mirrored that of the first presidential debate; however, new topics were discussed: debt and entitlements, immigration, the economy, the Supreme Court, foreign hot spots and the candidates’ fitness for office.

The last presidential debate was overshadowed by Trump’s response to Wallace’s question: “would you accept the election’s results?”  Rather than ensuring the peaceful transfer of power, Trump stated, “I will look at it at the time.”  Later, when pressed to answer the question again, he said, “I will keep you in suspense.”  Clinton responded to these comments by saying, “That’s horrifying.”  At a rally in Delaware, Ohio after the third debate, Trump stated he would accept the results “if I win.”

When Wallace—citing independent analysts—pointed out that both candidates’ plans would increase the nation’s debt, both participants rejected that claim.  Trump assured that his plan would “create tremendous jobs” and “an economic machine” would be constructed.  Likewise, Clinton declared that her plan would “not add a penny to the national debt.”

Trump also restated his trademark position on immigration.  “We have to have strong borders,” he said, “We have some bad hombres.”  While Clinton agreed that border security is important for national defense, she disagreed with the “deportation force that Donald has talked about.”