Student audience members recount experiences inside debate hall
While the vast majority of Washington University students watched Sunday night’s presidential debate on TV like the rest of the nation, 352 students were selected to be part of the audience watching Republican candidate Donald Trump and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
Those tickets went out to students via a lottery system, wherein the first 500 students selected were informed on Sept. 29 that they had a chance at getting a ticket. Since that day, there had been much speculation around exactly how many tickets the University would have available for students.
Speaking after the debate, those students who sat in the same room as the two presidential candidates said that the experience was unique and exciting.
“There’s like a lot of vibrations that you definitely cannot feel through the television screen,” senior Candace Attah said. “When Hillary accuses Trump of not having the temperament [to be president], you can kind of feel the heat that he kind of puts off in the room.”
Attah also said that Trump’s persona as an entertainer affected the room, with audience members laughing both with and at the candidate’s remarks.
Throughout the debate, waves of cheers and clapping occasionally came up from the audience, either for or against a particular candidate. That practice was discouraged at one point by moderator Anderson Cooper.
“We want to remind the audience to please not talk out loud,” Cooper remarked to the audience. “Please do not applaud. You’re just wasting time.”
Those in the hall said that the applause, laughter and clapping seemingly came from both Democratic and Republican supporters in the audience.
“There were pockets of Republicans, pockets of Democrats. Different people were laughing and clapping in different areas of the debate hall,” junior Stella Schindler said.
The seating of the debate was arranged with undecided voters onstage, with two VIP sections of local and national Democratic and Republican party members directly behind the moderators. Students and other attendees were seated in the balcony.
“It was kind of cool they had the setup so we were on the upper deck balconies and then the media, all the main networks had their studios down below. So it was cool to kind of see like you watching the media of a media event,” senior Nathan Walton said.
Students said that while Washington University students definitely participated in the outbursts, there was activity in the VIP section as well, including the candidates’ families.
“The family sits right behind Anderson Cooper and the two moderators and you can kind of see the nonverbals that go back and forth,” Attah said.
As for the debate itself, Schindler said that the overall tone seemed vitriolic.
“I would’ve loved to have seen more policy discussed, except given the nature of the candidates and their past interactions, I was not surprised,” Schindler said. “I was just kind of surprised at what they let the last question be. It was in some sense very funny to hear Donald and Hillary try to compliment each other, but it was sort of anticlimactic to what was a sort of funny attack on each other the entire time. I was expecting it to be a very angry ending or something.”
Earlier on Sunday, students had arrived at Whitaker Hall without much knowledge of whether or not they would receive a ticket. Students were served sandwiches and other food until around five o’clock, when tickets began being announced, with the first ticket going to Sophomore Molly Shepherd.
“They made a big deal about [Shepherd], who got the number one ticket. They brought her up and announced in front of everybody,” Walton said.
After receiving their tickets at Whitaker Hall, audience members were bused from the east end of campus up to the debate hall and screened at a security checkpoint. Senior Deniz Ariturk said the initial mood inside the hall was mostly excitement.
“I think everyone was just like, ‘they didn’t know what to do and everyone kept running around and taking pictures,’” Ariturk said, who joked that she was even able to get a Snapchat photo of Wolf Blitzer.
Around 7:30 p.m., the hall quieted in preparation for the broadcast to begin. During the debate itself, no audience members were allowed to use cell phones.
“They basically told us, ‘Don’t talk or anything. Don’t take pictures,’” Schindler said.
When it was all over, students exited out the front gates of the security perimeter along with other audience members, as students and community members waited to greet them.
Additional reporting by Noa Yadidi.