It was unlike any debate watch party I’ve attended in the past, and that’s the point.
What better way to understand what college students voting for the first time might be thinking than to join them in their environment, a classroom equipped with streaming video in Buies Creek, North Carolina.
The rural community is home to Campbell University, a faith-based Christian college that draws an increasingly diverse student body, and like much of the state is poised on the knife’s edge of an election between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
Fifteen students assembled to watch the debate and act like a focus group. There was a vocal pro-Trump contingent, a couple of pro-Clinton young men, and a half dozen young women who were non-committal when they came into the viewing room, and who left without voicing support for either candidate.
Campbell is traditionally conservative, and it is a point of pride that in 1992 and 1996 the campus hosted conservative firebrand Patrick Buchanan in two of his quests for the presidency. The Students for Trump twitter account originated at Campbell, and though I didn’t meet its founders, they regularly tweet mostly pictures of young women wearing “Make America Great Again” hats.
The clash between the progressive Raleigh-Durham research triangle and the traditions of rural Buies Creek just an hour’s drive away play out in the everyday interactions at Campbell, where I spent a week as a Woodrow Wilson visiting fellow, a program that sends people from different walks of life to small liberal arts colleges.
“I just wrote a paper on how Trump is a post-modern neo-Fascist, and I’m not voting for Hillary. I don’t know what I’m going to do,” said one male student, who didn’t want to give his name.
On the other hand, Alex Ruxer and his girlfriend, Christie Williams, declared themselves, “full-on Trump,” and both have already voted absentee in Connecticut. Marvin Tawney, a veteran who is back in school at age 42, is a registered Democrat who doesn’t like Clinton. After the debate, he said he liked a lot of what she said, but worries she’d be too quick to go to war.
He was skeptical of Trump and his magical thinking on the economy, and appears genuinely anguished about what to do on Election Day.
During the debate, the Trump supporters loved it every time Trump jabbed Clinton. The whoops in their maleness mimicked Animal House, reaching a crescendo when Trump wouldn’t say he would concede the election if he lost. “What I’m saying is I will tell you at the time, I will keep you in suspense,” he told moderator Chris Wallace. That drew laughter and clapping from the Trump contingent, amplified when the candidate muttered that he should have gotten those Emmys too.
No minds were changed because of the debate. Those who love Trump or even just tolerate him didn’t move off that position. He didn’t do anything any different or more or less outrageous than he’s been doing all along.
While Clinton said in the debate it is “horrifying” that Trump wouldn’t say that he would abide by the election results, and the talking heads all agree this is an assault on democracy, Trump’s youthful supporters cheered him on.
“I think Northeasterners mistakenly think Trump supporters just need to be informed in order to see the deficits of their candidate, but this is not the case,” a professor at the college emailed me, as helpful guidance to a visitor from the Northeast. “Beginning with the election of President Obama followed by marriage equality, and now Black Lives Matter, the Christian, male, hetero hierarchy has been shaken to its very core,” he said.
His point is well taken, and the potential election of a woman president further challenges the established order. Yet these students are not monolithic, and just when you think you’ve got things figured out, someone comes along to challenge your thinking. Kenly Stewart, a history major with a minor in religion, sought me out to tell me what he had discovered about Clinton.
After seeing so much of what he called “negativity” about her on Facebook and Twitter, he took it upon himself to know more. “Once you do further research, so much of those claims appear to be false,” he said. “They’ve painted her into a corner of being the evil untruthful person.” After learning more about her long career, and watching “Frontline,” he concluded, “There are reasons she’s more secretive.”
Stewart, born and raised in Fayetteville, North Carolina, said the debate moved him more into the Clinton camp, with one exception. He said he was yelling at the TV when Clinton said there was no other incident in history where the loser wouldn’t accept the election outcome.
“She’s wrong,” he said, citing the election of 1860 “where we didn’t accept Lincoln. That didn’t turn out so well for us.” Enough said.