As they walked together through the pre-debate carnival in a Hofstra University parking lot on Monday afternoon, sophomores Kadeem Adrian and Tianna Watkins were marching with other students in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, chanting “No justice, no peace.”
But the march of some 30 students, many who held handmade political signs in support of other left-wing causes – “There is no Planet B!” – had a different kind of edge from similar protests so common on American streets today, as many were quick to say.
“The atmosphere on campus has been very calm, really,” says Ms. Watkins, not too far from the the One.org inflated White House jumping playpen. “There’s not too much tension between everyone, and everyone is just having fun right now. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance to get involved in everything and have fun and pay attention to this historic debate.”
The testy clash between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump had been billed as a debate of Super Bowl proportions, and beforehand Hofstra cheerleaders and marching band were among the gaudy network TV stages – cheering, really(!), for the civic virtues of democracy rather than stormy partisanship. Despite the vitriol expressed about the candidates nationally, participation in the democratic process remains energizing, especially for the nation's newest voters.
Matt Baldassano, a second-year law student wearing a Trump/Pence T-shirt with other mostly male students, started chanting “Blue Lives Matter” when fellow students marched by. And, yes, there were a few harsh exchanges, and Trump supporters were a conspicuous minority here.
“But for the most part, everybody’s been pretty nice, no one’s gotten too angry,” says Mr. Baldassano, as the marching band played a Lady Gaga song. “We have had a few angry shouts, so it got a little divisive, you could say. But overall, it’s been pretty good around here – it’s just been democracy in action.”
Indeed, most of the students, even seniors, will cast their first vote this November, and they saw today as a celebration – Go Pride! – both in the fact that Hofstra houses a leading center for presidential studies and has hosted a presidential debate for three consecutive election cycles.
“We have some of the nation’s brightest, most altruistic, most public-spirited students in America,” said Hofstra President Stuart Rabinowitz to the audience minutes before Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump took the stage. “You spend time with these young people, and you have to feel optimistic about the nation’s future. And we host this debate and the past two debates for them.”
The students are younger, more fresh-faced Millennials than many of the exuberant Bernie Sanders supporters or Occupy alums or #NeverHillary progressives who chanted for a “revolution” over the past year.
“I just turned 18; this is my first time voting,” says freshman Cassie Passantino, from Wall Township in New Jersey. “I mean, it’s stressful first to think, 'OK, this is my first time voting,' like, I really need to make sure I’m making the right decision.”
“But now that the debate is here, and I’m living through history and living through the third political debate on my campus and volunteering with it,” she continues, “it makes voting so much more exciting and you really kind of see the difference you’re making, now that you’re surrounded by this.”
Anna Hogan, a senior wearing a Johnson-Weld T-shirt in support of the Libertarian ticket, doesn’t think the system was rigged against her candidates, even though they didn't meet the polling threshold to be included in the debate. There has to be some kind of qualifying cutoff, after all, but maybe 5 percent in polls rather than 15, she says.
“Then I think Gary Johnson and [Green candidate] Jill Stein should have a right to speak in the debates, and have America hear what they have to say,” Ms. Hogan continues. “If more people heard what they had to say, they would be, maybe, ‘I should look into this person more,’ and it could change a lot of things. I don’t think we should be limited to hearing just Clinton and Trump.”
Eager to participate
Her friend, Christina Betances-Orrell, is undecided, leaning toward Clinton, and hoping the debate will help her decide what she wants in a president. But she’s been turned off, she says, that “the country is split in so many ways, and this has caused a lot of conflict for people who feel so strongly about the candidates.”
Nearly 7,500 Hofstra students, or more than two-thirds of the 11,000-member student body, entered a lottery for a few hundred tickets to attend the debate on Monday. And more than 800 students applied for the some 500 positions as volunteers, officials said.
“It’s very interesting to be a part of this right now,” says Ms. Watkins. “I mean this is a crazy election, the candidates are very interesting in their own ways, it’s –"
“– it’s like a reality show – you don’t know who’s going to win,” says Mr. Kadeen, who used a magic marker to write Black Lives Matter slogans on his white Hofstra T-shirt.
“Being a first-time voter, just as an American, it's my duty to exercise my right and use my voice,” Kadeen says. “To speak up for things that I believe in, and communities I feel are underrepresented and not given a voice. I mean, we are a democracy, so why shouldn't I use my voice and speak up for what I believe?”