Following Tuesday’s Democratic primary debate, students met with a panel of guest speakers Wednesday afternoon to discuss issues such as the rise of Bernie Sanders and the overall state of the Democratic Party. The Students Talk Back event, hosted by the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics, analyzed the debate from multiple perspectives and provided a forum for students to ask questions and provide insight on the race for the Democratic primary.
Guest panelists included Dario Frommer, a former California Assembly Majority Leader and current Unruh Institute Legislator-in-Residence and John Thomas, a consultant and strategist for Republican candidates throughout the state of California. Students also heard from Christina Wilkes, president of the USC College Democrats, and Leesa Danzek, vice president of the USC College Republicans. The debate was moderated by Unruh Institute Director Dan Schnur and Daily Trojan News Assignments Editor Jack Walker.
Key issues discussed during the panel included the controversies surrounding Hillary Clinton, who remains the Democratic frontrunner despite having been plagued with accusations over her use of private email servers. Though some believe the email scandal has damaged Clinton’s campaign — leading Wilkes to call it “the scandal that keeps on giving” — others felt that Tuesday’s debate gave Clinton a chance to defend herself.
“This was her format,” Thomas said. “I think she did a great job and that she hit her marks — this really was her place to shine.”
Though some felt that Clinton’s performance might be strong enough to detract from the email scandal, Danzek believed that, ultimately, Tuesday’s debate would not change how voters felt about Clinton.
“I think that, at the end of the day, no matter how the debate went, it secured beliefs for both Democrats and Republicans,” Danzek said, pointing out that Clinton’s achievements as secretary of state can be interpreted differently depending on which political party is analyzing them.
Many students were eager to hear about the performance of dark horse candidate Bernie Sanders, who has been surging in the polls recently due to his progressive policies and appeal as a self-identified democratic socialist. Despite his popularity with certain members of the electorate, however, Frommer said that he still cannot gain widespread appeal with voters across the nation.
“Bernie Sanders is going to do well in states where you have a high percentage of Democratic voters who are white, well-educated, a little better off — I think that’s an appeal,” Frommer said. “If you look at some other states where you have a lot of voters who are Latino, African American or Asian American, it’s a different story. And that’s the challenge for Sanders — how do you get through that gauntlet?”
Wednesday’s panel also discussed issues such as the contrast between the Democratic and Republican debates, with several panelists pointing out that Tuesday’s debate was much more respectful and controlled, with fewer targeted attacks toward specific candidates.
“A lot of us expected a debate where candidates who are desperate for points were really going to jump on Hillary, but nobody did,” Frommer said. “They made their points respectfully, and they didn’t come after her very hard.”
Schnur and others from the Unruh Institute believe that the panel provided a more analytical approach to the debate, which allowed students to consider the issues from a different perspective.
“People have very strong opinions on who they think ought to be the next president, and they tend to argue very strongly and very loudly on behalf of their preferred candidate,” Schnur said. “What I like about this kind of program is that it’s not yelling, it’s not screaming — it’s conversation. For someone who’s not decided on which candidate they want to support, we’re giving them an opportunity to think about those candidates in a different context.”