Young people are going to be the ones living with the consequences of what happens in the 2020 election. Many of them don’t have the right to vote, but they should be heard — so we asked 11 teenagers from across the country to watch the debate last night and let us know what they thought.
Here’s what they had to say, edited for length and clarity.
Overall: The debate put us in the surreal position of watching seven white candidates grapple, collide, and dance around the issue of race. While the Democratic victor is guaranteed to be white, the losers of this debate were undeniably people of color.
It was amusing at best, and maddening at worst, to see white men like Biden, Buttigieg, and Bloomberg vying to raise their hands and point fingers at one another about past policies that harmed people of color. Tom Steyer, in one of his few relevant utterances of the night, announced that everything operated under the “giant subtext of race,” and he was right.
I liked: Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar were refreshingly cogent debaters. Perhaps both women were at an inherent disadvantage in a debate that required candidates to yell, interrupt, and take up space — despite their convincing performances, the women senators struggled to make anything stick.
The candidates I was least impressed by: Nobody seemed to break through the white noise or offer anything new. Bernie Sanders, perhaps comfortable in his frontrunner status, made characteristically little effort to appeal to new voters outside of his usual discourse. Meanwhile, Buttigieg, Biden, and Bloomberg felt like progressively more out-of-touch versions of one another, like a series of those Snapchat filters that show you how you’ll age.
Satchel Walton, 16 DuPont Manual High School, Louisville, Kentucky
What was missing: Neither the environment nor climate change was mentioned by the moderators. Not once. It got a few mentions from Sanders, Steyer, and Buttigieg, and the issue has been briefly discussed in previous debates, but it is frankly absurd that the issues that will be the biggest threats to our way of life in the 21st century weren’t debated. I’m still waiting for the pointed question to the candidates who oppose nuclear power, or a question to all candidates about how they will fight the powerful fossil fuel lobbies or convince world leaders to come along with them, or any question about one of the myriad of environmental issues other than climate change, such as mountaintop removal, access to drinkable water, or the pollution of waterways, land, and air.
The moment I’ll remember: Biden’s certitude that “I will win South Carolina.” He said he’d win. Then the moderators asked him what would happen if he didn’t. He said he would win. Asked again in the spin room, he said he would win South Carolina. If Saturday’s results roll in and Biden doesn’t win, it will be clear that he’s done.
What I didn’t like: It is frustrating that at each debate candidates come with studies or articles that factually contradict each other but the moderators and news media can’t tell us who is correct. Amy Klobuchar and Joe Biden bickered about who wrote a particular bill. Was it Klobuchar or Biden? I don’t know! They both claimed to have written it, and it’s a simple and knowable fact. But the moderators didn’t say. The “How much will Medicare for All cost?” debate happens at every single debate. Yet we still haven’t clarified if it would save money or if Sanders’ plans would annually cost three times as much as the American GDP. I just want one good article from an unbiased, credible source showing what the different studies the candidates are citing actually show about the facts behind the claims.
What was missing: Children are still being separated from their families, but immigration reform was not even touched upon. Climate change was only mentioned when foreign affairs was brought into question, though it was not of the utmost importance. As a young Latinx person, both of these issues are of top priority considering my community in Phoenix is especially impacted when it comes to immigration and the future of this planet is at stake.
Bernie and Warren’s campaigns are committed to inspiring people who do not normally participate in democracy to show up at the polls this election year. But what is it all worth if these new or reintegrated voters are being targeted by voter suppression tactics in states across the nation? Democrats should be talking about the relevance and presence of voter suppression.
I was least impressed by: Bloomberg. He is a billionaire with an obvious personal agenda. His stop-and-frisk policy in New York was a form of racial profiling and an evidently racist tactic that was intended to oppress people of color. This reminded me of SB1070 in Arizona, an anti-immigration bill that allowed law enforcement officials to racially profile within predominately Latinx and immigrant communities.
Sophia Kianni, 17 Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology @sophiakianni
I liked: Bernie Sanders — he had answers prepared and, considering the fire he was faced with, responded relatively well. Linking his comments to Obama’s was smart. He also pointed out that 47 out of 50 polls have shown him beating Donald Trump, debunking claims he would be unable to do so.
Joe Biden also had a surprisingly solid night, and his choice to be polite and avoid butting in made him look more levelheaded than his counterparts.
I didn’t like: Pete Buttigieg looked desperate to get speaking time, and he interrupted Sanders and other candidates at every possible moment he could. He came off as arrogant and rude. How did the moderators allow him to sing praises about black voters without asking about his nonexistent minority support? I was also unsettled by Michael Bloomberg’s comment that he “bought” Democrats their seats in Congress.
My favorite moment: Elizabeth Warren taking on Michael Bloomberg, talking about how he poured money into her Republican opponent! It was an incredibly effective way to demonstrate how recently he has changed his positions — including his view on stop-and-frisk — to become a “Democrat.”
What was missing: The fact that Bloomberg was asked about his choice to ban trans fats in New York City but there was no time to ask about climate change is deeply concerning and appalling. And why were candidates asked about North Korea and China but not India?! They should have discussed Trump’s support of Modi, despite the Indian leader’s persecution of Muslims.
Ryan Pascal, 17 High school student, Los Angeles @ryanapascal
I liked: Elizabeth Warren impressed me the most. While her (mostly male) opponents shouted and interrupted each other, she remained calm and collected. It’s important to note that the candidates around her who blew up were male because I believe that had she acted the same way as a woman, people would view her as unfit, unhinged, and emotional.
A moment I’ll remember: When the candidates discussed gun safety. It’s an issue that I am very passionate about, along with millions of other Americans — particularly, young people. The topic got a substantial amount of time and each of the candidates made strong points.
Even Pete Buttigieg made a poignant statement, saying older politicians’ inaction on gun safety legislation helped usher in a new “school shooting” generation. His point that he was a high schooler during Columbine resonated with me, as a high schooler who sees the impact of gun violence. The fact that someone from the Columbine generation is now old enough to run for president puts the gravity of the crisis into perspective.
What was missing: I wish the candidates had spent more time discussing climate change. Tom Steyer tried to inject a comment or two concerning the topic, but there was no serious examination.
Overall: I will be honest: No one impressed me. It was a very hostile, unsecure space in which personal jabs stood in for the answering of serious questions. I feel as though this debate really showed me the state of the Democratic Party in terms of individualism. The only two candidates that showed comradery were Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. It was a very disappointing night.
What was missing: Reparations. Although much of the debate was mostly spent on tackling the Black vote, I feel like the candidates should have spent more time on this topic due to the variances of platforms and ways in which this could be implemented. As of now, Elizabeth Warren is the only candidate actively trying to incentivize HBCUs — why aren’t we talking more about this?! She’s not a perfect candidate by any means, but this does make me eager to see her plan of execution on this matter. Everyone is trying to secure the Black vote, but who is trying to actually assist blackness?
Final thoughts: This debate was PURE chaos. Literally a HOT-ASS mess, and it solved nothing nor gave me any insight about the platforms or issues these candidates are trying to address.
Billy Mykel, 16 Argyle High School, Sanger, Texas @mykelbilly
My favorite moment: Pete Buttigieg’s attack on Bernie Sanders’ ability to beat President Trump among moderate voters and how people in swing districts would flee from the senator’s far-left policies. Buttigieg’s allusion to President Trump being reelected and the House being lost due to divisions in the Democratic Party spoke to what really is the center issue of this debate and election in my mind: Just how progressive is the future of the party?
I was also impressed with former vice president Joe Biden’s performance compared to previous debates. He was able to steer the conversation in his favor several times. His comparison between Sanders’ voting record and the Big Pharma and tobacco lobbyists was especially powerful.
What was missing: I wish the topic of student loans was addressed more in tonight’s debate. While it was brought up by individual candidates during the discussion of education, I wish I could have heard more of their opinions on the issue and more solutions to it. I also wish that the conversation about education went into student mental health, which is something that affects many people across the nation and was only mentioned once during the whole night. These two issues are a serious concern to the nation’s youth and are a major cause of many of the systemic issues we see with poverty, depression, anxiety, and suicide in the US.
Zyahna Bryant, 19 University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia @ZyahnaB
What I liked: I was surprised by Tom Steyer’s call for reparations. It is important to mention the fact that there are no people of color remaining in the race. Because of this, in many of the racial justice–focused conversations that would perhaps center reparations for Black people, the topic is often left out of the discourse. If I had to make a prediction of who I thought would bring that up, I am not sure that Steyer would have been my guess.
What I didn’t like: I am continually confused about why Pete Buttigieg remains on the stage and in the race. He sometimes has insightful points, but overall he does not appear to have much of a real vision or blueprint for the future of the country. I am also very unimpressed by Amy Klobuchar. Again, not completely sure why she is still in the race.
And I really didn’t like when Joe Biden claimed to have a grasp on the Black vote in South Carolina. I think his relevance and association with this idea of electability is bound up in the proximity he has to Obama — and the nostalgia/memory of the Obama presidency among southern Black voters. Biden continues to sell himself as Obama 2.0 and I am hopeful that voters in South Carolina see through it.
What was missing: I think that this debate was very messy. There was quite a focus on shade and reads between candidates, but in order to beat someone like Trump, I do think that we are going to need to hear more policy. This is a good time to showcase platform pieces in a strategic way and reach the audience who may be on the fence. I need to see more of that.
Overall: The moderating of this debate made it difficult to differentiate winners from losers. A combination of poor rules enforcement, frequent interjections, and cross-talk created messy conversations with messier implications for viewers.
My favorite moment: Bernie Sanders’ answer on the Israel–Palestine issue, specifically in response to concerns among parts of the Jewish electorate, exhibited a lot of political courage. Calling Benjamin Netanyahu a “reactionary racist” is easily the most radical position adopted by the candidates on the stage, and one that could pay off for Sanders among pro-Palestine supporters. His answer — coupled with his critiques of the interventions in Iran, Guatemala, and Chile — indicate the ways in which a Sanders presidency could be incredibly consequential in terms of foreign policy and drastically reshape the face of American military influence abroad.
What was missing: I hoped that the candidates would spend more time addressing the #MeToo movement, particularly in light of Harvey Weinstein’s recent guilty verdict. South Carolina has some of the most regressive sexual education policies in the US, a key indicator of the likeliness of sexual assault, making the state a unique stakeholder in the fight against sexual violence. This could have easily been incorporated into conversations about education or Bloomberg’s NDAs. While some candidates were close to discussing the issue, they ultimately missed the mark.
Kennedi Casey,17 Martinsville High School, Martinsville, Indiana @ken_noell
Who I liked: My favorites were Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, and Bernie Sanders. All three were very straightforward as to what they expect or want to accomplish if they win the presidency. I give props to Klobuchar for putting herself out there during the debate. Throughout the election process, I have not heard much from or about her, but last night I feel as if she really pushed forward to be able to get herself heard.
Who I didn’t like: Michael Bloomberg. I feel as if he is only running for office since he has the money to do so.
My favorite moment: When the moderator asked what proof Warren had regarding the allegation that Bloomberg had told one of his former employers to abort her child, and Warren answered, “Her words.” I admire this, since women are more likely than men to be told that their words are not the truth. Warren wanted to make it shown that she will listen to people and believe them when they talk about things that they have experienced.
Overall: I feel as if this debate was informative, but also complete and utter chaos. I understand that debates are intense and everyone wants to share their opinions, but I want them to also express human decency.
Marcelo Villar-Ojito, 16 High school student, Miami @marcelo_vo
Who I liked: It was tough to discern who was actually making a good point and who was just shouting louder than the other people on the stage. However, Elizabeth Warren showed some restraint. Throughout the debate, there were many interruptions during designated speaking times, but Warren held her tongue more than everyone else. Her responses and attacks, while charged, were backed by evidence and statistics. It’s always good to see a politician use facts.
What was missing: The debate didn’t focus enough on education costs. Many candidates on the stage have conflicting public stances on college tuition, but once again it wasn’t clear how they plan to pull off their different proposals. It’s customary for a presidential candidate to promise a slew of things on the campaign trail, but as seen from previous years and past presidents, only so much can be done once in office, even with a clear path. Without a clearly articulated plan, it’s difficult to know what to expect. I’m sure they have ideas on how they want to achieve lower tuition; I just want to understand them.
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