After the presidential candidates put on one of the noisiest, most chaotic debates in recent memory, voters across the country struggled for words — printable words — to describe the display. Many went first to profanities. Others landed on more polite, but still biting, terms for the live, prime-time event, long considered evidence of the rigours of U.S. democracy: “A joke,” “a disgrace” and “so disrespectful.”
“I was sad. It was sad, and it was very pathetic,” said Rickey Hampton, as the 54-year-old stood inside the doorway of his Las Vegas apartment.
It was another day of reckoning with the nation’s rapidly transforming political culture and its seemingly irreparable divisions. In interviews with voters across key states in the contest, those who watched the spectacle nearly unanimously recoiled from it. Many said Trump was the instigator, whose frequent interruptions blew up the rules and any pretense that the men were there to discuss policy.
None said it would change their minds on how they planned to vote. Instead, voters on both sides said it only reaffirmed their positions.
Hampton, who works at a tuxedo and tailoring shop in Las Vegas, said that the president’s decorum was “not presidential at all” and that he appeared to speak only to his base of supporters, not to the American people.
Trump’s refusal to condemn white supremacy reaffirmed for him as a Black man that voting is not enough — he must urge other people, specifically his Black friends and family, to vote, something he doesn’t normally do, he said.
“This is really life or death, and he’s letting you know,” Hampton said. “This is serious. … You have to vote. You really have to get out there. This is different.”
In Wisconsin, Donald Darwin, a 52-year-old white man, heard something different from the president, saying he felt he appropriately condemned white supremacists when asked about it by moderator Chris Wallace.
“Trump said exactly what Wallace asked him to say. He told them to stand down,” said the engineer from Wautoma.
He acceded the debate appeared to get out of hand at times, but he stopped well short of faulting Trump and praised him as “a fighter.”
“This election is incredibly important. If Trump were to give an inch, you can bet Biden and the left would have savaged him over it,” he said.
Keith Valentine, a 37-year-old Las Vegas Democrat, said the president behaved like “a narcissist,” and he turned off his television after watching the debate for about 10 minutes. “We knew it was going to be like that for an hour.”
Valentine, who is reluctantly voting for Biden, said he wasn’t shocked by what he saw and dismissed the idea that it was “nastiness” on display. “That is two old people, two rich people bickering,” he said.
Nastiness is what it’s like to “be Black in America. Or be a minority in America. Be a woman in America,” said Valentine, who is Black. “You’ve dealt with far worse.”
The debate that played out Tuesday, coming amid a pandemic, months of protest and unrest over racial injustice and other compounding crises in America, “was a moment where all of us were like, `Something is wrong here. Something is deeply wrong here,” said Amytess Girgis, a 21-year-old University of Michigan student in Ann Arbor.
“I’m not sure if any of the debates are going to change anybody’s mind,” said Girgis, who intends to vote for Biden. “I’m sort of of the disposition that the vast majority of Americans have decided who they’re voting for. The question is the body of Americans who are deciding whether or not to vote at all.”
Bill Kitz, a 62-year-old Republican in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, spoke at the front door of his Victorian within blocks of Lake Winnebago. He voted for Trump in 2016 but regrets it. He said he had already planned to vote for Biden but was taken aback by Trump’s behaviour, which he called “unseemly.”
“I’d had enough of this kind of thing for a long time,” said Kitz, a 62-year-old education professor at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. “But my wife and I watched the debate last night and were just sickened by the spectacle of this man, who the nations of the world are supposed to look up to, disparaging Biden, no matter what you think of Biden and his years in Washington.”
Across the country in front of her central Las Vegas apartment, 61-year-old Maria Loomis, a new Republican, said the debate reaffirmed her decision to vote for the president.
“Donald Trump, he won’t listen to anybody. He marches to his own drum,” she said. “He gets the results that need to be done. He may not be ethical about it sometimes, and he’s not social graceful, either. But it gets done.”
Loomis, who registered for the first time to cast her ballot for Trump this year, acknowledged her candidate was often the aggressor, but said she thought the former vice-president didn’t have much to say and appeared weak.
She described the debate as “a couple of kids on a schoolyard” but wrote it off as politics as usual.
“The debate was no debate. Period. It was just ne-ne-ne-ne-ne-ne-ne,” she said, using her hands to mimic talking back and forth.
Associated Press writers Thomas Beaumont in Oshkosh, Wis., and Mike Householder in Detroit contributed to this report.