Live from Cowles Library, It’s Debate Night!

Posted: September 18, 2015 | By: Iowa Caucus Project Staff Tagged: Blog
Photo by Aaron Feldman

Photo by Aaron Feldman

After the lights and cameras were positioned, the atmosphere in the Reading Room of Cowles Library at Drake was electric. While the staffers of the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley had been preparing the debate stage, a coalition of Drake students and CNN workers were also working diligently. Its goal was to establish the perfect atmosphere for a focus group in response to the Republican debate.

The panel had been selected by CNN only after making thousands of phone calls. The CNN staff had previously ensured that the panel members were all undecided. If they were leaning toward a candidate or two, that was acceptable, but they took special care that the participants were leaning toward different candidates, not just one. The goal, political analyst Rita Kirk said, was to be as unbiased as possible.

The participants understood that if they were to speak on live television, tens of millions of people would be watching them. Perhaps this is why that during the four hours of ceaseless debating, their attention never seemed to waver. By watching their facial expressions, I could tell they were all enthralled, but in completely different ways. Some covered their mouths when shocked, some laughed. One man just looked equally disgusted by everything that was said. Marco Rubio’s water joke was met with awkward silence by all, perhaps one of the only universally shared reactions of the night.

Despite the diversity in facial expressions and opinions, when CNN correspondent Randi Kaye asked questions, the participants were able to agree on three conclusions. First, Carly Fiorina was a clear winner. In the post-debate survey, an overwhelming 22 out of 32 said she did best. Participants thought she was able to stand her ground against Trump and the rest of the testosterone on stage. She was knowledgeable of the facts, and many members expressed that they would be excited to vote for a political outsider like her. When one respondent said that this country is heading in the wrong direction, it was met by overwhelming head nods. Another participant added that Republicans have had majority control in Congress for a while and haven’t been able “to get anything done.” Perhaps, the respondents said, it’s time to look outside the realm of politics for a truly strong leader.

Second, none of the participants said they would be voting for Trump. Although they found him entertaining, they were turned off by his apparent misogyny, attack on Bush’s wife and lack of political knowledge. Despite their disfavor of Trump, eight respondents still thought he would win the Republican nomination.

Third, many participants expressed frustration that so much time was devoted to bickering. Drake student and focus group participant Katie Allen said “they spent way too much time being enemies not opponents” and “attacking each other rather than tackling issues.” Specifically, she was disappointed not to hear anything about affordable higher education. Participants added they didn’t like the climate of the debate. For instance, if they didn’t attack other candidates, they came across as weak (many thought this way about Ben Carson in particular). However, if they did, they were wasting time that could be devoted to issues. It was a lose-lose situation. Indeed, many if not most of the highlights of the night involved the dynamic between the candidates rather than strong statements of policy goals.

The amount of work CNN devoted to this segment astounded me, especially considering the focus group was only featured for two-and-a-half minutes. However, this brief segment was one of the most informative parts of debate post-coverage. The goal of the focus group was to see how conclusions were reached, not just the conclusions themselves. The group was definitely successful in this regard and provided insightful topics of discussion for people watching at home. It is important to remember that polls can only measure numbers. They can’t measure reason or passion in the way informed discussions can. Although the focus group was limited by sample size, it perhaps provided more insight than any pundit or poll could have given. Undecided voters still have a lot of time left for informed discussion, and they are going to need it. By the end of the night, participants had chosen their favorites, but not one candidate in particular.