Diving into the Democratic Debates

McCarthy Fellow and Foghorn Editor Ethan Tan, ’21 writes this week’s blog, recapping his deep dive into the 2020 election cycle, where he was able to see and be part of two debates between presidential candidates seeking the Democratic Party’s nomination.

After a very busy end to the fall semester, I was able to take part in what will be a historic presidential election. I was able to volunteer at the sixth Democratic debate held at our sister Jesuit institution in Southern California, Loyola Marymount University. After watching all five prior debates on television, it was an amazing experience to watch all seven candidates at that debate try to appeal to voters across this nation.

At the debate, I was able to assist with various tasks under the watchful eye of USF Urban and Public Affairs alumna, Elise Gonzalez. USF Politics Professor Jay Gonzalez and USF President Emeritus Stephen Privett were also in attendance. I never really imagined how large of a production putting on a one-night event would be. Whether it was helping in the main debate hall, making sure the media filing center and the spin room were ready to go, and helping set-up war rooms for campaigns. This experience blended two of my favorite things together: event logistics and politics. 

There, I was tasked to assist with checking in the invited guests of campaigns and the Democratic National Committee. I had the experience to help work in the “spin room,” where the media outlets and journalists listen to candidates “spin” the debate in their favor. I will say that being actually in the spin room is radically different from watching soundbites from the spin room on Twitter You’re really in the room where it happens, experiencing the stress and energy of being at this type of event up-close. I like to think that I had the coolest job in the spin room as I along with seven others got to be “lollipop sign” holders for the seven candidates (Vice President Joe Biden, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Tom Steyer, Andrew Yang, Sen. Elizabeth Warren) and DNC Chairperson Tom Perez, where we followed our assigned person and/or their surrogates around the spin room. I got to hold Andrew Yang’s sign and followed him and his campaign staff as they visited various stations set up by media networks and while he paused for interviews. 

As a proud Voter Engagement team lead with USFVotes, the McCarthy Center initiative to register all eligible voters on campus, I was beaming with a smile in the audience when Sen. Sanders brought up the topic of voter turnout and Sen. Klobuchar addressing the purge of voter rolls as an attack on Americans’ right to vote. Voter turnout is something that I take seriously as a member of USFVotes. It’s something that we work to improve by hosting events to educate fellow peers to go out and vote. Historically, youth voter turnout rates have been low. This discussion of voting on a national stage also speaks to how important it is for people to vote as the act of voting is what carries and moves our democracy forward and for many, it is the only way citizens can have their voice heard directly at all levels of government. Everyone’s vote is an endorsement of a vision of America that they want and voting is the easiest way to participate in democracy — so easy one can do it from the comfort of their own home.

Ultimately, this debate was not just about voting, this debate was a showcase of every candidates’ platform and policy visions that they have for this country. Whether it be Sen. Sanders and Sen. Warren spearheading medicare for all, to Andrew Yang pushing his vision of a universal basic income to a national audience. Every candidate up on that stage was up there to promote their vision of America and to capture Americans who share and reflect that same vision. When it comes time for the registered Democrats in this country to vote or caucus for their ideal candidate, it is important to realize that the chosen nominee will need to reflect the needs of the people of this great country in order to build a sense of unity, spirit, and pride that seems to have been lost. As a whole, the nominee should listen to the various communities that he or she will have the honor of representing in November and from those interactions, change or modify their platforms to meet the needs of those communities in order to better improve the way of life in this country.

Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to return to the debate site, this time in Las Vegas, Nevada. The experience was largely similar as I again helped manage audience check-in, yet different as the environment was much tenser as Nevada held its caucus a mere three days after the debate an the first ballots in Iowa and New Hampshire had already been cast. The candidates used the opportunity on stage this time to go after one another and started to position themselves in a way to both defend and promote their policy agendas rather than just promote in earlier debates. The debate in Las Vegas featured one new candidate, former mayor of New York City, Mike Bloomberg and did not feature Tom Steyer who did not qualify and Andrew Yang who suspended his campaign a week before the debates took place. I once again found myself in the spin room holding Sen. Warren’s sign this time and got to meet her surrogates up close, including Rep. Joaquin Castro from Texas who shared the same vision of America as her. 

It was definitely a unique experience getting to attend two debates and to be within feet of political stars, both new and old, and amazing staff who make sure the event ran smoothly, alongside the media and journalists who report on the event, ensuring that Americans can better understand the political landscape in order to make informed decisions at the ballot box. As a staff member and an editor of the Foghorn, the USF student newspaper, seeing journalists that I admire perform their craft of interviewing candidates on the fly and writing stories quickly in the media center gave me some insights on how to improve my own interviewing skills and reporting. As a student who still dreams of serving the public good, being able to interact and see public servants in-person that night made me realize that these servants aren’t as far and out of reach as we think, and that with hard work, being one of those public servants down the road will no longer be an out-of-each dream, but rather reality. 


Democrat presidential electiondmocratic debatesPresidential electionvoter engagement

jgpearson • February 28, 2020

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