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Hundreds gather at Elon to watch Clinton-Trump debate

Elon University's first presidential debate watch event proved to be a bigger draw than organizers had anticipated. 

Four years ago, Patrick Snowden tuned in for every presidential debate, as President Barack Obama and his challenger, Republican Mitt Romney, squared off before a national audience. 

Hundreds of Elon students gathered in the Moseley Center for the Sept. 26 presidential debate. 

And on Monday night, the Elon junior was tuning in again for the first debate of this year's contest, though armed with something he didn't have four years ago — a vote to cast. He was joined by hundreds of fellow Elon students who gathered Sept. 26 in the Moseley Center to watch Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump spar with one another in the first of three presidential debates leading up to the Nov. 8 election. 

"I'm interested in seeing which Trump shows up tonight, and which Clinton shows up tonight," Snowden, a Clinton supporter, said minutes before the debate got underway. "I've never seen these two people play off each other like they will tonight."

During the 90-minute debate, Clinton and Trump argued policy differences, traded barbs and competed to get the final word in as they attempted to solidify their support and attract undecided voters in the hotly contested race. National polls have the two virtually even in the race, with the results of the first Elon University Poll released a week ago showing Trump with a slight 1.4-point lead in the battleground state of North Carolina. 

The debate watch event was organized by the Council on Civic Engagement, Elon Votes! and the Center for Leadership.

​The debate was expected to attract record television crowds, and attendance at the Moseley Center far outpaced what the organizers the Elon Political Engagement Work Group, the Council on Civic Engagement, Elon Votes! and the Center for Leadership — had anticipated. 

Carrie Eaves, an assistant professor of political science who helped put the event together, said they had planned for a crowd of about 60, and her unofficial count put the number closer to 300. The event also generated national media coverage. National Public Radio political correspondent Asma Khalid, at Elon Monday night to cover the event, said its nonpartisan nature was part of what brought her to the university to cover the watch party for a national audience.

Students seem more engaged and excited this election cycle, Eaves said. Events like the one Monday night help these first-time voters experience a presidential election in a community setting. "I think they've gotten the message that this is an important election," Eaves said. 

Alec Knupp '20 arrived with red, white and blue elephants, a traditional emblem of the Republican Party, adorning his shirt to support his candidate, Trump. His was one of only a few partisan displays among the crowd, with most students paying rapt attention to the debate playing out on the screen, though responding to zingers with laughter and well-made points with applause. 

Knupp said the debate was evenly contested, though he felt Trump offered more direct answers and better plans to help boost the economy. Knupp was particularly impressed by Trump's tax plan, which calls for broad cuts to corporate rates, and said Trump "stayed composed" and "stayed presidential" during the debate. 

Attendance at the watch event was estimated at 300, with the event to be one of three before Election Day. 

​"I don't think Hillary was as direct in her answers as she could have been," Knupp said. "I think Trump was really realistic with his answers."

Mark Dalhouse, director of Study USA, was joined by members of his Core 110 - The Global Experience course at the debate watch, and he chatted with visiting lecturer David Baker before the debate got underway. Baker, a senior lecturer at Coventry University in his home country of England, brings a unique perspective to the American political process as he spends the semester at Elon as a Fulbright Commission scholar. He said he had caught highlights of previous debates across history, but this was the first time to sit down and watch one live. 

"British people have a very high opinion of American democracy, in terms of the engagement it has," Baker said. 

Dalhouse added that he sees the student population at Elon this year as more engaged than in years past, though perhaps not as satisfied with what they will find at the polling place come Nov 8. 

"I think there's a great deal of interest, but there's a lack of satisfaction with the choices they are facing," Dalhouse said. "But I do think the enthusiasm is there for civic engagement."

Courtney Close '20 attended Monday night at the urging of her Global Experience professor, saying that she was looking for similarities and differences between the Clinton-Trump matchup on the debate stage and the well-known debate between Democrat John F. Kennedy and Republican Richard Nixon in 1960, which is considered to have been pivotal in Kennedy's election that year. 

However, Close said she saw the debate as less about political positions as social issues that divided the two. More of the disputes seem to have come up out of the tabloids during this year's presidential election, Close said. She talks most frequently about the election with her mom, and said both plan to vote for Clinton this fall. 

Eaves said the success of the first Presidential Debate Watch Event has organizers excited about the second, also to be held at the Moseley Center, on Oct. 9 and the third on Oct. 19, which will be at the Danieley Center. 

"It's just a great way to build community," Eaves said of the watch events. "As they're leaving here tonight, they'll be talking about everything they saw and learned with their friends."

Owen Covington,
9/27/2016 8:10 AM