Website Exclusive: A Behind the Scenes Look at the First Presidential Debate
On September 29th, 2016, I attended the highly anticipated debate between presidential candidates Hillary Clinton - former Senator and Secretary of State - and Donald Trump - businessman and former reality TV show host. While over 80 million people tuned in to watch the debate on TV, I was fortunate enough to see what happened on the ground.
First of all, there was a half-mile circle around the debate hall, at Hofstra University, of closed off roads. As a result, almost everyone in attendance gathered at the Cradle of Aviation Museum, half a mile away from the debate hall, to park their cars and wait for the busses that would bring them to the debate. At the museum, three lines were made for getting tickets: one for the Trump Campaign, one for the Clinton Campaign, and one for the media. After showing identification, security passes were also handed out to grant access to the debate hall.
One bus ride and half a mile later, I arrived at the debate hall. Hofstra University students were both working at the debate and in attendance. To reach the entrance of the auditorium, I walked down a long red carpet. C-Span had an exhibit of Presidents and First Ladies of the United States that lined the hallway. The long walk built anticipation and excitement, emphasizing the magnitude of this election and its consequences.
After arriving, I had the chance to walk around the auditorium and stand just mere feet away from the podiums where Trump and Clinton would thrash. I brushed shoulders with some political celebrities too, such as Bill De Blasio, Chris Christie and Donna Brazile. Of the 700 seats on the ground floor, I also noticed an unfortunate lack of diversity in regards to age and race: the majority of the crowd was old and white. Besides the Hofstra University students working as volunteers, I was one of the youngest people in attendance.
Fifty minutes before the start of the debate, the auditorium was quietly mumbling in anticipation. With thirty minutes left, the Co-Chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates, Frank Fahrenkopf Jr., spoke to the crowd. He explained the structure of the debate and thanked everyone who made the night possible. Then, quite strictly and sternly, he asked that no one cheer, jeer or speak during the debate. He emphasized that the debate was not held for the lucky few that were in the attendance but the millions watching across America. I completely agreed with this sentiment. Others did not.
Seven minutes before debate time, the moderator Lester Holt urged again that no one talk during the debate except at the beginning and end. He took his seat. The lights were dimmed. A row of reporters began introducing the debate from the mini-studios set up along the middle of the auditorium. All I could hear was the sound of clicking cameras. Someone came on stage less than a minute before Holt went on air to fix the mic attached to his suit. Then, after the tech guy left, Holt began to introduce the candidates.
The room was electric. The tension and excitement was palpable. Suits and dresses across the auditorium stood up in cheers. The candidates posed and shook hands, then returned to their respective podiums. After everyone settled back into their seats.
In the beginning of the debate, the audience was particularly tame. However, as the night went on, I learned the true feelings of the majority of the audience: they were Trump supporters. One of the loudest and longest cheers came when Trump said, “I will release my tax returns against my lawyers wishes, when she releases her 33,000 deleted emails.” Many members of the audience also lit up when, in response to being accused of not paying taxes by Clinton, Trump interjected, “That makes me smart.” Contrary to popular belief, Trump’s mic did have sound problems, making his sniffles (which were a major topic of conversation of topic on Twitter) almost inaudible to the live audience.
Overall, I feel grateful for the chance to have attended this debate. The live audience saw the candidates up close and personal. While watching the debate on TV offers a chance to see the debate, attending the debate offered the chance to feel it. The anticipation in the air minutes before the debate, the pure excitement when Clinton and Trump first shook hands and the tension when Trump interrupted Clinton, inciting simultaneous cheers and jeers. The mood of the debate was constantly fluctuating, but always palpable. Attending this debate emphasized the consequences of this election: the ideas that Clinton and Trump argued about on that stage are going to have real consequences, regardless of who wins come November 8th.