Fear and Loathing in St. Louis

This was a debate about gender: in the focus on the behavior of Donald Trump and Bill Clinton, in the prospect of a woman President, even in the post-debate analysis of Trump and Clinton's movements on the stage.
10/13/2016 04:28 pm ET Updated Oct 14, 2017

The second debate is over, but I think people are still surprised that it took place at all. As Republicans ran for cover following the release of the recordings with Donald Trump's comments about women, predictions were flying around St. Louis that the debate might be cancelled, that Trump might withdraw from the debate, or that the Republican Party might delay everything until it figured out what to do next. None of this occurred, of course, but it left a palpable sense of anxiety beforehand and tremendous expectations when the two candidates arrived in the debate hall.

For all the unpredicted circumstances surrounding the debate, the debate itself sustained much of the focus and much of the tone established in the first debate on September 26. The shift from podium format to town hall did little to change these dynamics. Once again, Donald Trump was loud and passionate while Hillary Clinton was restrained and focused. Unlike the first debate, Clinton was unable to control the discussion and goad Trump into following her lead.

After the first debate, most observers concluded that Hillary Clinton had won. In the second debate, the most accurate conclusion is that neither candidate lost. Trump, whose campaign seemed to be in crisis, used the debate to re-establish himself as a candidate. Clinton, with the bar set high following the first debate, sustained her image as an effective communicator. Both spoke clearly to their core constituencies, both found opportunities to appeal to groups where they have weaker support, and neither candidate gave an inch.

On Campus

This is the fifth time that Wash. U. has hosted a debate (Presidential debates in 1992, 2000, and 2004, and the Vice Presidential debate in 2008). Like Hofstra, we've been through this before. But this time felt very different. The mood on campus was electric, although it was sobering to watch the level of security increase with each debate. I teach within the secure perimeter surrounding Wash. U's. athletic center (the site of the debate), and it was strange to pass through a metal gate on the way to class, and stranger still to see that gate locked shut on Friday.

Still, the students were thrilled and there was a wonderful, carnivalesque atmosphere. The Budweiser Clydesdales even marched through campus and were kept in stalls immediately outside the dining tent set up for the media.

On the Debate Stage

The major question I posed on this blog before the debate was whether the town-hall format would create any major differences from the first debate. The answer was "no" in almost every way.

First and foremost, the candidates pursued minimal interaction with the undecided voters asking the questions. This behavior stood in sharp contrast to previous town-hall debates, where candidates physically approached the undecided voters, asked follow-up questions, or referred to them later in the debate. Put simply, candidates in previous town-hall debates tried to connect with the people asking the questions. Trump and Clinton did not. They kept their distance and seemed more concerned with each other than the undecided voters.

Second, the moderators played a different role than their counterparts did in previous town-hall debates, or for that matter Lester Holt in the first, podium-style debate on September 26. Anderson Cooper and Martha Raddatz aggressively sought to keep the candidates within the confines of the debate format. They interjected when the candidates spoke out of turn. They sought to enforce time limits. They confronted the candidates about what they said. As a result, much of the interaction in the debate hall was between the candidates and the moderators, not the candidates and the citizens asking the questions.

Third, the relationship between the candidates had a different tone from previous town-hall debates. That came as no surprise. Trump and Clinton have demonstrated no hesitation about criticizing each other and no qualms about saying they dislike each other. But the level of animosity was palpable. They refused to shake hands. They leveled political and personal accusations against each other. In previous town-hall debates, the candidates have often sought a more casual, friendly tone. Not so on Sunday!

Finally, this was a debate about gender: in the focus on the behavior of Donald Trump and Bill Clinton, in the prospect of a woman President, even in the post-debate analysis of Trump and Clinton's movements on the stage. Not since Geraldine Ferraro took the stage in the 1984 Vice Presidential debate was gender so much a subject of explicit discussion and implicit subtext.

In the Athletic Complex

I was one of Wash. U.'s designated "experts," which meant I watched the debate from the press room and later took questions in spin alley. The most fascinating part of the experience was to observe the journalists as they watched the debate unfold. They were silent and intense when the debate began, gasped when the candidates didn't shake hands, and delivered an audible chorus of laughs when Trump proclaimed that "Nobody has more respect for women than I do."

In the Minds of Millennials

In preparation for the debate, I asked the 18 students in my freshman seminar on the Presidency to record their own reflections. They are a terrific group of students: informed, thoughtful, and deeply inquisitive. They are voting in their first election, and they represent a fascinating perspective from the millennials who have been the subject of so much speculation in this election cycle. They also reveal how the experience of hosting a debate differs from watching a debate.

The students unanimously reveled in the debate experience on campus. They found the experience fascinating, thrilling, and occasionally inspiring. Student engagement with the national media and student political activism surrounding the debate all seemed like hallmarks of a robust democracy. Sure, to some degree they were star-struck by the arrival of politicians and celebrity journalists. But they were also delighted by the prospect of watching campaign mechanics up close.

When it came to the debate itself, however, they were overwhelmingly disappointed. They were particularly upset by the opening salvos, as Trump and Clinton focused on each other's personal lives. "The first 30 minutes of the debate were uncomfortable and, for lack of a better word, cringey," observed one student. "I had a lot of moments where I literally covered my face with my hands." Another student wrote "the debate tonight, especially for the first half hour, truly enraged me."

And things did not get much even when the debate shifted to discussions about tax policy or foreign policy or energy policy. "I found tonight's debate to be one of the most vicious I have ever watched," wrote one student. "I didn't think either candidate performed particularly well tonight." Another student, clearly saddened by the whole affair, concluded "I don't think they even tried this time."

As far as my students were concerned, there was only one winner in the debate: Ken Bone, the coal-plant operator in the red sweater. My students began smiling at the mere mention of his name.

We finished class with one question unanswered: What to expect in Las Vegas on October 19? My students are expecting more of the same. We will see if they're right. I look forward to Jacob Thompson's posts from UNLV when the 2016 Presidential debate season moves to its third and final act.

This post is part of an editorial series produced by The Huffington Post in conjunction with the four presidential debates held this fall by the Commission on Presidential Debates. Each of the four debates will be held at a college or university, and the author of each post in this series will be a professor at the participating school (Hofstra University; Longwood University; Washington University in St. Louis; and University of Nevada, Las Vegas). To see all the posts in the series, visit here.