As a diehard Democrat, Charles Bright was ecstatic when former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took a commanding lead in the polls over business mogul Donald Trump. But as summer — and the Democratic National Convention — faded from sight, the polls began to tighten, and suddenly Bright found himself actually considering the possibility that Trump might become the next Commander in Chief.
It was a feeling that stayed with him well into Monday afternoon, just hours before the first presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.
“I was dreading this debate, because I didn’t really know what to expect,” says the gay, 30-year-old entertainment blogger from Falls Church, Va. “And the closing of the gap in polling has really been unnerving.”
But by the time the candidates left the stage, Bright’s dread was replaced with relief and elation. True to form, Clinton delivered a strong, commanding performance during one of the biggest, most-touted political events for a generation.
“I definitely think she came out on top,” says Bright. “But regardless of that, Trump was just disastrous. He couldn’t even form a coherent sentence, especially when talking about foreign policy.”
Bright is not alone in that sentiment. Almost immediately after the debate, pundits on most cable TV channels were hailing Clinton’s victory. Their assessments were soon bolstered by polls that began to trickle in as midnight approached. A CNN snap poll showed a decisive majority of debate viewers picked Clinton over Trump, by a 62-27 margin. A CNN focus group of undecided Florida voters favored Clinton by a 90-10 margin. And over 70-percent of undecided voters in a Pennsylvania focus group run by GOP-leaning consultant and pollster Frank Luntz thought Clinton had come out on top.
The much-hyped debate showcased two candidates with dramatically different profiles. The first woman presidential candidate of a major party, a former First Lady, junior senator from New York, and Secretary of State, facing a billionaire businessman, hotel magnate and reality TV star. But it also gave TV viewers a glimpse of their contrasting styles.
Clinton delivered a calm, powerful performance that demonstrated a wealth of knowledge on various topics. Trump, on the other hand, distilled his policies into catchier sound bites, lobbing strong attacks calling into question Clinton’s honesty, highlighting her “insider” status, and accusing her of flip-flopping on certain issues for the sake of political expediency.
“I think Trump got the most jabs in, but just numerically. In terms of effectiveness, Clinton came out ahead on that,” says Bright. “Clinton was very focused on when she hit him, and what she hit him on. Especially in her closing, when she got him on his derogatory statements on women, I thought that was beautifully executed, from a political standpoint, not even a partisan standpoint.”
“Every time he would go on a rant, she would come back with a zinger,” says Martin Diego Garcia, a 30-year-old gay D.C. resident and the vice president of legislative and political affairs for the LGBT Gertrude Stein Democratic Club. “I think it came off as him making a fool of himself, and Hillary holding her own, presenting herself as somebody who has the temperament and understanding of policy to be the president.”
Garcia felt Trump showed his temper and a lack of discipline during the debate, and seemed caught off guard by some of Clinton’s attacks on him. Clinton was also strong in her response to moderator Lester Holt’s questions on racial justice, where she gave a nuanced response, while Trump painted the majority of African-Americans and Hispanics as living in inner cities or low-income, crime-ridden communities.
The deep contrast between the pair became apparent later in the debate, when Trump’s energy seemed to flag and he became even more incoherent, at one point accusing Clinton of having fought ISIS — which did not exist before the early 2000s, even by the most generous definition — for her entire life.
Neither candidate was asked questions about LGBT rights during the debate. Bright would have liked to hear about the Supreme Court, but he also understands that raising that issue might be counterproductive for Democrats. The potential liberalizing of the court remains a potentially galvanizing issue, one that could drive conservative voters to support Trump. Garcia would love to see LGBT issues raised in future debates, and not just questions focusing on marriage equality. He’d prefer questions about transgender issues, nondiscrimination legislation, and ways of guaranteeing LGBT people equal access to housing or health care.
Though it was only glancingly covered during the debate, Clinton helped herself by conceding she made a mistake by using a private email server when she was Secretary of State. By admitting to the mistake, Bright believes Clinton helped neutralize attacks on her trustworthiness. By comparison, Trump refused to apologize for his role in stoking the racially-tinged Birther conspiracy movement, whose adherents continue to question President Barack Obama’s citizenship. In fact, Trump bragged about his role in the movement, and deflected from Clinton’s charges that his continued questioning of Obama’s citizenship exemplified racism.
As the debate pivoted towards race — and, subsequently, law and order — Clinton again showed a strong command of the issues, particularly when dealing with the hot button issue of police violence.
“She got as close to an honest and authentic statement about where the conversation should go than any other candidate that I’ve seen recently,” says Angela Peoples, a 30-year-old queer activist and organizer and registered Democrat from D.C. “And her naming that the problem is not only around police violence and bias, but implicit bias in all of us. That’s very much the direction we need to go if we’re actually going to have a conversation that implements the idea that black lives matter in this country.”
After the debate, Peoples remains concerned that Clinton and Trump appeared to be trying to disqualify each other, instead of getting to the heart of the problems facing the country. But she credits Clinton for offering more specific ideas for some problems than she’s seen most candidates offer in the past. Peoples also says there are many more issues that need to be addressed in at least one, if not both, of the two remaining presidential debates.
“I think that neither candidate really gave solutions for issues that are galvanizing young people of color today, particularly LGBTQ people,” she says. “I think there’s a lot more to discuss, and I’m looking forward to hearing that in future debates.”
But while Democrats (and most media outlets) touted CLinton as the night’s victor, across the aisle the most hardcore Trump partisans declared victory for their candidate. Joseph R. Murray, II, the founder of LGBTrump, the largest LGBT pro-Trump Facebook page, called Clinton’s debate performance “robotic to the point of being a mini-Rubio”.
“Hillary Clinton spent days preparing for this debate and — just like all the money she is wasting on negative ads — she wasted her time,” Murray said in a statement. “At the end of the day, she did not stop Trump’s momentum. That was her only job. Just like the jobs she has held before, she failed.”
But other Republicans, particularly those who have never been enamored with Trump, were left despondent and frustrated following Monday night’s debate.
“I thought I was going to make it through the election until about an hour and 45 minutes ago, but now I don’t think I’m going to make it,” Anthony “Rek” LeCounte, a 27-year-old gay Republican from Triangle, Va., said immediately following the debate.
“Watching the two of them together really drove home the point,” says LeCounte, a member of the D.C. chapter of the LGBT conservative group Log Cabin Republicans. “Two hundred years of American growth, power, exceptionalism, and promise, and this is what it’s come to.”
LeCounte doesn’t believe either candidate gained a significant edge, though he acknowledges it may depend on the amount of time viewers spent watching the debate.
“If you sat through the whole thing, Hillary Clinton probably had an edge. If you only sat through the first 30 minutes, probably Donald Trump,” he says. “Hillary took longer to hit her stride. And part of that was the expectations for him were so low.”
As a Republican, LeCounte likes some of Trump’s rhetoric on cutting red tape and bureaucracy, and on cutting taxes. But he is highly concerned about other issues where the GOP nominee strays from traditional Republican orthodoxy. LeCounte calls Trump’s protectionist rhetoric on trade “headache-inducing” and was disappointed when Trump, during an exchange on gun restrictions, agreed with Clinton on preventing people on the “no-fly” list from being able to purchase firearms. That’s why LeCounte is leaning towards voting for Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, a former conservative Republican governor of New Mexico.
“[Trump] definitely did not do himself any favors for me,” says LeCounte. “It just sort of drove home to me that he is unacceptable.”
Rick Oettinger, a 32-year-old gay financial analyst and Republican from D.C., felt the debate failed to live up to the hype that preceded it, since he feels neither candidate dealt a serious blow to their opponent.
“Hillary seemed to be well-rehearsed,” says Oettinger. “She obviously kept that smile glued to her face the entire evening, so she wouldn’t look like she had a scowl, so I would say Hillary was more polished.
“I thought that Trump’s performance was okay, but the bar was set relatively low for him. But he’s still wrong on the important principles that I think have defined the Republican Party in the last 40 years: economics, national security,” he adds. “And I don’t think he really demonstrated any leadership abilities in his performance tonight.”
It’s a feeling shared by some self-described Trump supporters, like Andrew Desser, who felt the Republican nominee came up short in Monday’s debate.
“Donald did not come as prepared as I thought he would this time,” says Desser, a gay 27-year-old political consultant from D.C. “[Clinton] was more fluent in terms of foreign and domestic policy. I think she had a couple of good one-liners. I think he did, too. They had a couple of good jabs at each other, but in terms of substance, I think Hillary won the debate.”
In future debates, Desser wants Trump to give more detailed answers about how he aims to implement his proposed policies, and needs to connect more with his intended audience, particularly voters who are not traditional Republicans. Some of Trump’s off-the-cuff retorts to Clinton — such as saying that not paying federal income taxes makes him smart, or that it would have been a wise business decision to take advantage of the housing downturn during the most recent recession — would not be well-received by those voters, Desser says.
He also recommends that Trump continue to emphasize his “outsider” status as a non-politician, which is potentially one of his strongest assets when courting voters unhappy with the current administration’s policies.
“Overall, I’d say I came away disappointed in Trump’s performance,” says Desser. “But we have two more debates, and a vice presidential debate, so I’ll have to see how they perform. I had been leaning towards Trump over the past couple of weeks. Coming into the debate, I was leaning towards him, and now I have some doubts.”
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