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Most DebateWatch attendees say debate did little to change their candidate preference
Oct. 4, 2012
Television and radio pundits will spend the next few days dissecting last night’s presidential debate, but regular people may find it hard to find it hard to have their own views heard by anyone other than friends and family.
Debate is an essential part of the political process, which is why the Community College of Rhode Island, in cooperation with Rhode Island College, hosted an event Oct. 3 to bring college students together with members of the community to watch and discuss the 2012 Presidential Debate.
About 300 people attended DebateWatch 2012 at the Vincent A. Cullen Field House at CCRI’s Knight Campus in Warwick. Students and faculty from both colleges, together with members of the greater Rhode Island community, participated in a town hall-style meeting with Rhode Island office-holders including Congressman James Langevin and Mayors Allan Fung and Scott Avedisian. Also present were members of the Rhode Island General Assembly and state Democratic and Republican party chairpersons. Channel 10’s Bill Rappleye and Channel 6’s Mark Curtis co-moderated the event.
This is CCRI’s inaugural event as a member of The Democracy Commitment, a leading national organization dedicated to promoting civic endeavors on community college campuses. The American Democracy Project (focusing on four-year colleges and universities) at Rhode Island College co-hosted.
After the town hall meeting, participants watched the nationally televised presidential debate. About 130 of them stayed later into the night to participate in small, roundtable group discussions about what they had seen. They also filled out surveys critiquing the debate format that the Democracy Project will send to the Commission on Presidential Debates. Changes have been made in the past based on the responses.
“The commission will hear the voices of the people in this room,” Rappleye said.
Seventy-nine percent said their candidate preference was unchanged after watching the debate. Three percent of people changed their minds and 18 percent walked away still undecided.
“I try to keep an open mind,” said CCRI student Joe Lucier, who will vote in a presidential election for the first time this November. “I came here knowing who I was going to vote for and that didn’t change, but it could have.”
He added, “I’m here because of my interest in politics, both local and national. I think this is extremely important to everyone.”
Lucier said he was happy to see fellow students at the event but he wished more were in attendance. He hopes more people of his generation will get involved in politics, even if that just means visiting the polls.
At many of the roundtable discussions, the consensus about the debate was that the candidates had stuck too closely to their talking points and often failed to give policy specifics.
“Maybe if the debate had been a little shorter they wouldn’t have gone around in circles so much,” said Ashley Goldberg, a Rhode Island College student.
In their survey responses, other attendees faulted the presidential candidates for “fabricated narratives,” “too many anecdotes,” “circular reasoning,” “fear tactics” and “strategic denials.”
Nevertheless, most respondents approved of the new 90-minute format for the debate and said they still managed to learn new things about each of the candidates’ views and policy positions. They also enjoyed the chance to discuss the debate with fellow Rhode Islanders.
“It was good to be out with other people and hear other viewpoints,” said North Smithfield resident Dave Fraley. He quipped, “They kept me awake through the whole thing.”
This is the third time that RIC has been involved in a DebateWatch event and the first time one has been hosted at CCRI.
CCRI President Ray Di Pasquale said the college was happy to welcome members of the community to CCRI and that group discussion and debate is what American civics is founded upon. With so many students in attendance preparing to vote in a presidential election for the first time, Di Pasquale added that he hoped the event would encourage participation.
“We hope that the students in attendance tonight encourage other students to get out and vote,” he said.
Event co-coordinator Valerie Endress, an associate professor at Rhode Island College, said she was happy to see the two colleges come together.
“A lot of CCRI students eventually come to RIC and we thought that if we had more interaction, those students would feel more comfortable when they get there,” she said.
She added that combining not just RIC and CCRI students, but also community members of all ages, is an important part of a DebateWatch event.
“Something that people say about DebateWatch over and over again is that they love to hear college students’ opinions because they don’t often get to sit down with them and talk about politics,” Endress said.
Young people often say they are not interested in politics, she added, but events such as DebateWatch give them a venue to feel like they can speak their minds and a way to start increasing their political literacy.
“If we can provide a nonthreatening context for students to talk, we find that they love to talk about politics,” she said.