Students, panelists diverge on issues at third Democratic debate

More than 100 students visited Wallis Annenberg Hall to watch the third Democratic debate and ask questions to a panel Thursday evening.  (Center for the Political Future / Twitter)

More than 100 people attended a live viewing and discussion of the third Democratic primary debate at Wallis Annenberg Hall Thursday evening.   

At the event, a panel of commentators offered analysis and fielded questions from audience members. Panelists included Democratic strategist Bill Carrick, Annenberg Media Center Director Christina Bellantoni, former MSNBC producer Ann Klenk, former special assistant to President George W. Bush Ron Christie and Center for the Political Future Director Robert Shrum. 

The event was co-organized by CPF and the Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy.

Attendees responded vocally to the diverse crop of politicians with energetic laughter in response to infighting among candidates and groaning after former Congressman Beto O’Rourke answered a question in Spanish. 

Most of the debate, which was held at the historically-Black Texas Southern University, was devoted to healthcare, a contentious political topic. A few students in attendance expressed disappointment in the lack of time devoted to other topics they consider to be priorities. 

“I was kind of mad that they spent about 10 minutes on climate change and nothing else,” said Dinithi Senanayake, a freshman  studying biochemistry.

Panelists pointed to O’Rourke and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro as two standouts in the debate, specifically in reference to O’Rourke’s bold stance on gun buybacks. 

“Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15,” he said, while Castro was praised for his bold attacks against former Vice President Joe Biden for inconsistent characterizations regarding his time in office. 

Panelists initially pointed to Biden — the campaign frontrunner — as the candidate to watch since a number of “gaffes” at previous debates, including flubbing his own campaign’s URL address, have consistently prompted criticism from members of the press. 

As the debate went on, attention shifted from Biden’s past performances to what some panelists and audience members called “missed opportunities,” such as how he answered questions about his time working alongside former President Barack Obama. 

During the first commercial break, when one USC student criticized Biden’s inability to “distance himself” from some of Obama’s immigration policies, Shrum said that would be a “terrible mistake,” considering the praise Obama continues to receive for his time in office. 

“Barack Obama is by far the singularly most popular person in the Democratic party,” Shrum said. 

But after the debate ended, some panelists said that even after several missteps, such as Biden’s tangential response to a question about race and education that somehow pivoted to the topics of Venezuela and record players, Biden will most likely bounce back. 

“He’ll survive this. I think he’ll be fine,” Klenk said. 

During a 30-minute discussion before the debate, panelists conducted a straw poll on whom audience members considered a favorite going in. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders received by far the most votes in the room, with Pete Buttigieg and Andrew Yang following close behind. Biden, though he remains the highest polling candidate nationwide, received among the lowest number of votes, which elicited some laughter from the audience. 

Panelists discussed how older and younger members of the press differ in their perceptions of Biden, who, until recently, was typically viewed favorably. 

“I personally like Joe Biden very much,” said Bellantoni, the former assistant managing editor for California politics at the Los Angeles Times. “I watch this and I think, ‘Man, this does not feel like it’s going to end well for his reputation.’ And that makes me kind of bummed out … presidential campaigns make people hate you.”

The event lasted almost five hours and saw attendees leave as energy dwindled.

“Look, it’s too long,” Bellantoni said. “It’s good — it’s a great, healthy debate — but the format is just a lot of talking and people lose interest and lose sight of what they’re actually saying.”