CNN was calling it the greatest political show on Earth. The New York Times was calling it among the most highly anticipated presidential debates in American history, a game changer. And The Wall Street Journal was calling it one of the most-watched political events in American history, with viewership expected to reach 80 million.
But the 30-some UVM students gathering in Lafayette 207 at 9 p.m. on Monday, September 26? They were calling it a party. “This is the most social event I’ve been to!” said Miranda Zigler.
It was also a learning opportunity, of course. Instead of basking in the glow of a black light and disco ball, members of the 117-year-old Lawrence Debate Union were basking in the glow of their laptops and, of course, the red and blue glow from the screen projector as Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump faced off for the first time.
On hand was newly appointed debate coach Helen Morgan Parmett, UVM alumna of the Class of 2000. “These debaters are learning the art and science of making arguments, but one of the most crucial pieces in being able to make successful arguments is tailoring them to your audience — bound up with a longstanding debate over rhetoric that goes back to Plato and Aristotle,” she said, welcoming some of the newcomers. “But overall, my aim for the team is to enjoy being together while engaging in a thoughtful activity of analysis and critique.”
Instead of Plato, there were plates of paper to hold the evening’s sustenance, which flew as fast as the words. Justin Morgan Parmett, the assistant debate coach, monitored boxes of Junior’s pizza as team members tiptoed down the stairs for another slice of cheese or veggie, in-between carefully monitoring the candidates’ expressions and reactions. “He looks so mad already!” the assistant coach said of Trump as the evening began.
Seven minutes into the debate, laughter filled the room as Clinton quipped about “trumped-up trickle down” policy. “It’s notable that she just took the first jab,” said Helen Morgan Parmett. “Will he take the bait?” Additional sounds: banging tables, gasps, clucks.
Sophie Scharlin-Pettee kept a keen eye on Clinton’s calm. “I hope I can emulate that gracious style in my own debating,” she said, adding that she joined the debate team because she wanted to challenge her own opinions but stayed because of the community dynamic. “It’s one of the most engaged, inquisitive groups on campus, and I love being surrounded by people who constantly encourage me to be a better thinker.”
Meanwhile, Duncan Crowe reached into a bag of Orville Redenbacher microwave popcorn to his left to keep his hands occupied when he wasn’t clicking on Facebook and Twitter, or perusing Clinton’s fact-check site. “I think he’ll weaponize a large number of social issues to use against her,” he predicted of the remainder of the debate.
Afterward, the group discussed audiences, and which candidates’ responses played to which audiences. “Secretary Clinton came out on top,” said Scharlin-Pettee. “Trump’s pitfalls — insecurity, brashness, dishonesty — were on full display.”
The next morning, Helen Morgan Parmett added that “a sizable portion of folks responding to polling results think that Trump won.”
“If there’s anything I hope the debaters took home, it’s that we need to do better in both educating people on how to engage in and use debate as a key component of deliberative democracy,” she said, “as well as identifying, understanding, and addressing the more effective, emotional and deeply-seeded beliefs that drive decision-making in the present.”