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The first presidential debate, between 1968 Wharton graduate Donald Trump and former Penn Presidential Professor of Practice Joe Biden, took place in Cleveland, Ohio on Sept. 29.

Credit: Chase Sutton , Son Nguyen

Tuesday night’s fractious presidential debate, between 1968 Wharton graduate Donald Trump and former Penn Presidential Professor of Practice Joe Biden, was met with fierce reactions from some of Penn’s most prominent election experts and political student group leaders.

Chris Wallace of Fox News moderated, asking questions about the candidates' positions on responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, the next Supreme Court justice appointment, racial tensions throughout the country, and climate change. Several students and professors stressed their frustration with candidates’ inability to achieve productive discussion, and cited Trump’s refusal to condemn white supremacy as one of the night's most shocking sentiments.

“We're just in a space now where there is no sense of we all watch the same debate and we can all agree on what happened,” Dr. Claire Wardle, Penn professor and co-founder and director of First Draft, a global non-profit focused on research and practice to address misinformation, said. She believes that the voices of the news media are suddenly less relevant in the current political climate, which is what allowed Biden and Trump to easily pander to their bases.

For younger audiences eager to participate in the nation's democracy, Wardle said she does not believe the debate showed anything they would be excited to be a part of. 

“If somebody can't follow those [debate] rules on stage, what does that mean for how they're going to govern a country?” Wardle asked. 

With such frequent interruptions between the two candidates, CBS News reported that The Commission on Presidential Debates is now considering implementing changes to the following two debates, including cutting off microphone access if a candidate breaks the Commission's rules on speaking time.

We don't have a shared sense of truth. It's just an avalanche of lies, which is making people turn away,” Wardle said, adding that the majority of misleading statements made at the debate came from Trump. 

College Republicans declined to comment to The Daily Pennsylvanian.

“My sadness is that the spectacle of last night, and it was a spectacle, was not actually about policies, it was not about how people's lives would be affected by whoever they vote for,” Wardle said. “And so my fear is that it's going to just drive down participation even lower, and people not participating in democracy is a really sad thing.” 

Between the health risks COVID-19 creates for those who opt to vote in person, and Trump’s erroneous condemnation of the integrity of the mail-in ballot system, experts and voters alike worry that there may be a significant impact on voter turnout in November.

Despite chaos between the candidates, College junior and Penn for Biden co-chair Cassy Ingersoll said she believes Biden emerged as the debate’s true winner. 

“I think the main reason [Biden won] is that Trump has proven yet again that he is unable to act as president, and the fact that he is unable to denounce white supremacy is infuriating and should make every single American terrified of what our president stands for,” Ingersoll said. “On top of that, I thought that Trump’s jabs at Biden's family, particularly his sons, were completely inappropriate, completely uncalled for, completely unprofessional, and just overall disappointing.” 

Wardle, too, highlighted Trump’s refusal to criticize white supremacy. When the president was asked whether he was willing to denounce white supremacy, he told the Proud Boys, a far-right group known for white supremacist ideals, to “stand back and stand by.” 

“The fact that there was no recognition of the dangers of white supremacy, and the fact that he failed to take a stand, that to me was chilling," she said.

Penn Democrats Political Director and College junior Michael Nevett believes Biden did a good job at highlighting the issues that are central to his campaign, especially regarding systematic racism, climate change, health care, COVID-19, and the Supreme Court. 

“On Trump’s end, we saw that he utterly failed, over the past four years, and last night, too, when he failed to make a coherent argument as to what he would do better this time around,” Nevett said. “So I don't think that this was the turnaround he needed, because he has no vision, and Biden provided a solid vision of what this country can look like.” 

Trump’s performance “reeked of desperation,” co-chair of Penn Justice Democrats and College junior Jack Cahill said. 

As an advocate of former presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Cahill said he did not sympathize with some attacks Biden made on progressive policies like Medicare For All and the Green New Deal.

Members of Penn Justice Democrats held a Zoom watch party of the debate. (Photo from Jack Cahill)

But in general, he said that sentiments around Biden have improved within Penn Justice Democrats’ group members — not because Biden has made a positive case for himself, but because of Trump and his “authoritarian tendencies over the past few months.”
He cited Trump’s refusal to condemn white supremacy in Tuesday’s debate as an impetus for undecided voters to commit to voting for Biden. 

“[Biden’s] aggressive distancing from [progressive policies] definitely left a bad taste in my mouth, and it reminded me that Biden is not the candidate that I wanted, and that the first days in office, if he’s hopefully elected, will be the first day that we start fighting him to start pushing him left,” Cahill said. 

Former Sanders supporters and members of the progressive constituency will still vote, Cahill believes. But the vote will just be “more painful."

Director of Data Sciences at Penn Program on Opinion Research and Election Studies Dr. Marc Trussler said one of the things that concerned him most about the debate was its moderator.

Trussler said he found Chris Wallace to be insufficient in “checking” the President, particularly regarding his claims about the lack of trustworthiness of mail-in ballots, and believes the next moderators will need a better plan going forward. 

“I think the most important thing is that the moderators for the future debates step up and be willing to say, ‘No, Mr. President, you're wrong,'" Trussler said. He added that moderators should also be able to frame questions in formats that state factual evidence and reflect a “larger commitment to uphold the truth.”

Like Trussler, Penn Dems Communications Director and College sophomore Emma Wennberg expressed concerns about Trump’s comments regarding the validity of mail-in ballots. Wennberg said she was particularly angered by Trump’s comments about the voting process in Philadelphia, in which he stated that "bad things happen in Philadelphia," and provided false information about poll watchers being kicked out of early voting cites. 

Currently, the Trump campaign does not have any certified poll watchers in Philadelphia. Additionally, there are no polling sites open in the city yet — only early voting sites where poll watchers do not have the same rights as they do on an election day, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

“Trump’s attack on Philly was just an attempt to sow doubt in a battleground state," Wennberg said. "And we just can’t let that happen. We can’t allow this rhetoric to undermine our democracy, but the message is out there now. So we’ll need to work even harder to mobilize our community at Penn, and our city, to push back on this voter suppression and voter intimidation.”