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Presidential debate watch draws crowds

| Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Approximately 1,500 students of multiple political affiliations came together Monday on South Quad for a campus-wide presidential debate watch sponsored by NDVotes.

NDVotes co-chair junior Sarah Tomas Morgan said the idea for the event first came about when the Office of the President asked NDVotes to brainstorm activities highlighting the presidential debates.

WEB - 20160926, 20160927, Chris Collins, debate watch, Trump vs. ClintonChris Collins | The Observer
Students gather on South Quad on Monday night to watch the first of three debates between presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Food trucks provided free concessions for attendees.

“Late last spring, the president’s office contacted NDVotes and said … they wanted to do a presidential forum this year that was focused on the debates themselves,” Tomas Morgan said. “I thought it was a fantastic idea because it’s pretty unique that a university president like Fr. [John] Jenkins is on this [debate] commission, so it made a lot of sense to highlight it, in my opinion.”

Once NDVotes was charged with highlighting the debates, they came up with the debate watch as a way to start a wider discussion surrounding the debates on campus.

Christina Wolbrecht, associate professor of political science, said this was a natural continuation of the mission NDVotes embarked on more than a year ago.

“The NDVotes piece really came from the students,” Wolbrecht said. “They really, a year and a half ago, were like, ‘We want to mobilize this campus and get our students involved and educated and mobilized about this really important election that’s going to shape, frankly, the rest of our live,’ and they’re exactly right.”

Tomas Morgan said she hoped the non-partisan nature of the debate watch allowed students of every political affiliation to enjoy the event.

“The president’s office wanted to get NDVotes involved and other groups like student government, because those are groups that typically draw together people from both sides of the aisle, and make a point to,” she said. “NDVotes is non-partisan and, obviously, student government is not politically affiliated, so my hope is that by advertising through those routes to students everyone [felt] comfortable and welcome coming.”

WEB - 20160926, 20160926, Caitlyn Jordan, debate watch, Trump vs. ClintonChris Collins | The Observer
A screen on South Quad shows presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton facing off in the first of three debates.

Wolbrecht said this event is an unusual yet highly effective method of educating students.

“I’ve been here 20 years [and] I’ve never seen an event quite like this as a way to get attention and interest in paying attention to the debates, etc.,” she said. “It’s a perfect fit for Notre Dame, for NDVotes. … It’s perfectly consistent with our mission of wanting to educate and mobilize students.”

Tomas Morgan said the mild weather this early in the year gave NDVotes the opportunity to get creative when planning the debate watch.

“We were looking for the best way to draw students to the debate watch, so obviously we needed food [and] we needed a great venue,” she said. “We knew that this one was going to be early on so that gave us more options — we were looking at outside as well as inside venues, and we wanted to make it a lot of fun to kind of draw people’s attention to the debates, make something that can sometimes be seen as a little contentious seem a little more friendly.”

In addition to the community foundation for the debate watch, the seven food trucks present attracted many students to the event.

“I was going to watch the debate regardless,” senior Michael Hutchinson said. “The reason I’m here with everyone else is for one thing, it’s interesting to see the consensus on campus, and also the food is a big draw.”

Other students took advantage of the event to watch the debate, though they might not have otherwise.

“I recently turned 18, and so I have the ability to vote and I feel like it’s something that us college students should take seriously,” freshman Holly McGrath said. “I really don’t think I would’ve watched it if they didn’t have an event like this. I probably would’ve said ‘Oh, I’ll watch it later,’ and then never.”

Tomas Morgan said she was pleasantly surprised by student turnout.

“I think it is a great testament to our campus about how engaged students are and how interested they are,” she said. “When it really comes down to it, students are showing up and informing themselves, and I think that shows great promise for young people on this campus. … People were really paying attention, they were engaged, they were hearing what students thought, [and] I’d say that’s where the real success was.”

Senior Elizabeth Tafesse said she was impressed by NDVotes’ efforts to keep students involved in the election.

“This is my first presidential election that I’m voting in and I think that — at least from what I see on Facebook and social media — Notre Dame is doing a pretty good job of trying to get people registered … but also informed.” Tafesse said.

NDVotes additionally held a post-debate panel in Recker’s Hospitality Room featuring representatives from the College Democrats, the College Republicans and BridgeND, which Tomas Morgan said kept the event focused on the student body.

“We wanted it to be a student-oriented, student-led [and] student-run discussion,” she said.

The three panelists — sophomore Sage Guynn from the College Democrats, senior Dylan Stevenson of the College Republicans and sophomore Christian McGrew representing BridgeND — spoke separately about their respective party’s candidate and the common ground between the two, but all three agreed Clinton defeated Trump in the debate.

NDVotes is planning another debate watch for the vice presidential debate Oct. 4.

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About Courtney Becker

Courtney is a senior from New York City majoring in film, television and theater with a minor in journalism, who recently wrapped up her year as Editor-in-Chief. She is a former resident of Pasquerilla West Hall and a die-hard Pittsburgh Steelers fan.

Contact Courtney