27 Sep 2016

Presidential debate: the verdict on campus


I watched the Presidential debate with about 100 students at Stony Brook University, Long Island, where I’m on a one-semester fellowship. At least here they were allowed to cheer and clap, unlike the live audience at Long Island’s other university, Hofstra, where the debate took place. But passions ran less high than I might have expected.

“I wish we could combine the two candidates,” said Suzanne, an African-American student of biology. “I like Trump’s economic policies but I prefer Hillary’s temperament.”

Before the debate, China, another African American, said it was unlikely to change her mind.

“I don’t like how Trump has instigated fear in the American people,” she said. “I believe in democratic ideals.”

Liz, a health sciences major who said she got most of her information from the guys on her cross-country team, was frankly confused as the debate started.

“To me, Clinton is suspicious. She’s secretive. All she does is smile,” she said. “I think Trump is pretty straightforward. But I don’t really know.”

Jeff, the President of the College Republicans, knew he hated Clinton.

“Trump’s appeal is that Hillary and her people are real global elitists,” he said. “And she’s a blatant liar.” He had supported John Kasich, the most moderate of the Republicans who ran to be candidate.

“But I guess I’m going to have to man up and vote Trump now,” he said.

Stony Brook is what, in the UK, we would call a “red brick university”. The students here usually work their way through college, waiting tables or working in a store. It’s a largely conservative place. New York City sometimes seems a world, not just a two-hour train ride, away.

Clinton’s promise to do something about student debt was received with applause. Her refusal to accept Trump’s plan to reindroduce “stop and search”- deemed unconstitutional by a judge because it unfairly profiles black men – also got a cheer.

“I think Clinton is doing better because she knows how to speak,” said Liz. “I think it’s because she’s a politican. And he hasn’t said anything really dumb yet.”

When it was over, Suzanne and her friend Shakira bounced up to talk. Suzanne is a first-generation American – her family is from West Africa. Shakira was born in Nepal. They are classic immigrants to America, chasing the dream, a family’s fortune’s riding on them.

Donald Trump was confident, they thought, and they liked that – the gulping water, eye-rolls and grimacing didn’t bother them. They liked his plan to reduce taxes which they thought might create jobs.

But they thought Clinton was more in control. And in the past Trump, they said, had said many things which offended African Americans. We moved onto other subjects – their urge to travel, to start libraries as volunteer projects in their families’ countries of origin, their plans to go onto medical school.

They were young, female, non-white, college educated, with a social conscience and a desire to make the world a better place. I thought I knew the answer to my next question.

“So has the debate changed your mind?” I asked.

“No,” they said. “We’re still going to vote for Trump.”

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