Debate at the Epicenter


Students pack the IOP as candidates go head to head.

On September 26, 2016, Harvard’s most politically engaged students gathered at the Kennedy School, the home of the Institute of Politics, to watch the first presidential debate. At 8:05 PM, five minutes after the doors of the IOP opened for the Debate Watch Party, the maximum capacity of the building was reached. Security staff fended off students eager to be in the politics and public service hub to watch the anticipated chaos.

The morning after the debate found the Internet teeming with gifs, memes, listicles, and Facebook statuses from everyone and their second cousin. These last ranged from non-specific five-word statements to essay-length dissections of the candidates’ every answer. There were also several articles about the lack of moderation. While the prominent news outlets like CNN and The Atlantic praised debate moderator Lester Holt, many of the crowd-sourced and ‘clickable’ content poked fun at the news-anchor for his perceived lack of control or moderation. While the Internet’s reaction suggests public bemusement and some consensus about the debate itself if not about the candidates, the words used by students on Harvard’s campus the following morning to describe the debate were characterized by opposition. Students in Dr. Roger Porter’s class, American Presidency, used words like “gloomy,” “funny,” “depressing,” “impressive,” “disappointing,” “expected,” and “competitive” to describe their experience of the debate.

The diversity of opinion on the debate’s effect on this election reflects the mixed emotions and the confusion that people are feeling at Harvard and around the country about this year’s candidates. While the overall impressions of the debate were varied, there were some moments that seemed to attract collective interest. Some of these included the candidates’ choices in color (the Democratic candidate wore red and the Republican wore blue); Mrs. Clinton chose to mention her granddaughter within the first thirty seconds of her time at the podium; Mr. Trump did lots of interrupting; Lester Holt was pretty quiet. But the fact of the matter is that on September 27 on the Harvard campus, one month after our return to the classroom, the question finally shifted from “What did you do this summer?” to “Did you watch the debate last night?” The answer was almost always in the affirmative.

The candidates’ facial expressions, the laughing, the interrupting, and the shoulder jiggling were distracting, but if viewers were able to get past all of that for a second, they might have noticed the words on the backdrop of the stage. The words of the Declaration of Independence were in constant view behind the candidates as they re-presented themselves, argued, pressed and stretched truths. The Declaration authored by Jefferson based on the principles that the Founders of this country believed in are held up as the most important and respected document in this country’s history. The Declaration of Independence was the first step in a long process toward establishing a new government that would eventually bring us two unpopular candidates: Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

On Monday night the IOP was overflowing with politically interested and active students. As these students gathered in their partisan, ideological, and service groups in rooms around the cavernous forum room as well as inside it, the reactions were clear and varied. Often a loud applause would erupt from the large forum room while the room full of the Right-of-Center students remained quiet and vice versa. When the debate was over and students returned to the problem-sets, essays, and readings that they had postponed in order to watch the debate, it became clear that this election, whichever way it lands, will not stop our work as students or as a nation. This one, 2016, will and has become a part of our daily lives and that won’t stop on November 8. The state of our Union is at stake, but the Union has been through quite a bit already.

Kelsey O’Connor ( wants you to vote!