Crossroads Cafe was packed Thursday night, Sep. 12 with students interested in taking in the third Democratic presidential debate. The watch party, hosted by the Middlebury College Democrats, invited students to engage with the national political process in advance of the 2020 elections.
The debate took place at Texas Southern University in Houston, with 10 candidates on stage answering questions for several hours. Given the sheer number of candidates vying for the presidency, Thursday’s debate — the third of 12 in total — came with heightened qualifying criteria. To earn their place on stage, candidates had to meet a polling threshold of 2% or more in at least four different polls. They also had to receive donations from 130,000 people, alongside 400 donors per state in at least 20 states.
With the debate broadcast on the big screens, students gathered to watch their favorite candidates discuss their platforms.
“I hope that making it easy and fun for students to watch the debates will help Democratic voters on campus to get clarity on who they want to vote for, and, ideally, create more energy and excitement for the elections,” said Isla Bowery ’20.5, the president of the Middlebury College Democrats, often called the College Dems.
The three-hour-long debate tackled some of the country’s most pressing issues. Moderators from ABC and Univision opened with questions on health care, a highly-contested topic among candidates. Under the attentive gaze of the audience, the conversation shifted to issues of racism, gun control, immigration, the trade war with China and more.
“Hearing many of the candidates not only admit that America has a racism problem, but also suggest policies to try to remedy it makes me cautiously optimistic about the direction our country could go if we flip the White House blue,” said Suria Vanrajah ’22, vice-president of the College Dems.
With each topic, candidates took pains to try and distinguish their policy from their opponents’ platforms. The extent to which they succeeded in that task, however, was up for debate, students at the watch party said.
“The current debate format isn’t made for actually presenting the platforms, I feel like it’s made for pandering and saying things that catch people’s attention,” Nyreke Peters ’21 said. “I feel like when you watch this, you don’t really get a full grasp of the candidates’ policies.”
While some students thought the candidates had similar messages, others felt the debate provided clarity on what makes each candidate unique.
“I think that the differences in the candidates are becoming more apparent, which is helpful for undecided voters,” Bowery said. “In comparison to the previous two rounds of debates, I found that the candidates were putting forth more cogent and well laid-out policy platforms.”
One thing attendees could agree on was the importance of being politically involved at this particular moment in time, whether that means watching the debates, staying up-to-date with the news, looking out for Twitter alerts or volunteering for their favorite candidates.
For many, this feels like an important way of breaking out of the so-called “Middlebury bubble” that can surround the campus. For some students, this will be the first major election-cycle in which they can cast a vote, which makes being engaged feel even more important.
Overall, Vanrajah said, the event was a success.
“We weren’t expecting many people to show up, since it was the first week of classes, but seeing so many people, especially so many freshmen, definitely makes me optimistic about future events during this election cycle and after,” she said.
As the democratic primaries and caucuses near, the College Dems hope to continue to engage students through events such as phone banking, canvassing in New Hampshire and voter registration drives. The club will also continue to host screenings of all the debates alongside talks from professors, straw polls and debate bingo.