CNN invited a high school debate team to watch and critique the presidential debate
The majority of the students thought Clinton did a better job answering questions with specifics
Editor’s Note: Kelly Wallace is CNN’s digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter @kellywallacetv.
Who better to critique the presidential candidates after their second showdown than a group of champion high school debaters who clearly know a thing or two about winning an argument?
CNN invited members of the Henry W. Grady High School speech and debate team in Atlanta – seven-time state champs – to watch the debate at CNN Headquarters and give us their impressions on how the candidates performed. They may be #tooyoungtovote, but they’re not too young to sound off on the issues they care about most.
During the 90-minute exchange between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, the 26 high school students took copious notes and occasionally tapped their desks when they agreed with a point being made at the debate, just like lawmakers do in the British Parliament.
When it was over, the majority of students said Clinton was the clear winner, based on debate technique and strategy; four thought Trump scored better; and about five called it a draw.
“I think that Hillary won the debate because I think the most important thing is to always answer the questions,” said Kassidy Kelley, a senior at Grady. “I think that Donald Trump just went basically around the questions, avoiding answering them, because often, at times, I suppose his policies and plans weren’t really as well thought out to be able to provide a direct answer.”
But Ben Kuehnert, also a senior, gave the night to Trump.
“He did exactly what he needed to do to win this election,” he said, referring to how Trump appealed to blue-collar workers and mainline Republicans. “Multiple times, he spoke directly to those two groups of people … and he did it very well.”
Fellow senior Quinn Preston disagreed and called the debate a draw. He said both candidates could have focused more on policies and their plans for the country to win over undecided voters. “That’s what the American people want to know. They don’t care about people’s pasts. They want to know what you’re going to do for us in the future.”
When it comes to Trump’s past, and the tape of him using sexually aggressive language toward women, the students had mixed opinions about how the Republican nominee handled the issue.
“Obviously, if there’s something negative you have to address … you always want to defuse the situation, and I think the strategy that he took with defusing it is saying it was ‘locker room talk,’ ” said Gregory Fedorov, a senior. “I can’t really think of a better way out, (but) I don’t think that’s a great answer at all. The president should never be caught doing anything like this, but he was caught in the situation.”
Gregory thought the best thing Trump did was that he managed to concentrate all the attention on this topic in the first 15 minutes of the debate so that it never came up again.
Kassidy, who thought Clinton won the debate, said that Trump referring to his comments as “locker room talk” made it seem like they weren’t a big deal. “He really didn’t apologize for it at all,” she said. “He completely blew it off and tried to take the attention somewhere else.”
Franky Fernandez, a sophomore, thought Clinton should have pushed Trump more on what he said about women and what he likes to do to them.
“I feel like since one of the president’s obligations is to be chief citizen of the United States, she has to lean in heavier on the comments made by a man who obviously has disrespect and disregard for people’s feelings … especially the minority population and women,” said Franky.
Even though the students were not in high school during the Clinton administration, they all said they were aware of the allegations that former President Bill Clinton had sexually assaulted women in the past.
Did Trump score any points by bringing up those allegations? None of the debate champs seemed to think so.
“Going back to Bill Clinton, that doesn’t affect Hillary Clinton at all. Believe it or not, they’re two different people,” said Denis Goldsman, a senior. “And he’s not the one running for president, so I think that’s kind of dumb.”
These debate champs also thought both candidates missed some opportunities throughout the evening. Clinton missed chances to call out Trump on his lack of specifics, said Franky.
“I think Donald Trump, in both debates, has used the strategy of throwing out these kinds of tangents and non sequiturs to kind of move past and avoid any questions that he might not be able to answer, but Hillary Clinton has missed the opportunity to bring him back to actual issues,” he said. “She instead (tried) to keep up with him and move forward.”
Trump’s missed opportunities included failing to provide an argument for his plans versus just making an argument against Clinton, said Bailey Damiani, a senior. “He was basically just critiquing all of Hillary’s plans and policies … and so all we have is very defensive arguments on Trump’s side, but we have really no offense from him and no reason that we should vote for him.”
All the students tapped away during discussions about major issues such as the Supreme Court vacancy, climate change and health care.
Still, Micah “Mitch” Bowman, a senior, wasn’t satisfied. “I was just very disappointed, because I thought that both candidates spent way too much of the time in the debate just attacking each other and not really focusing on the audience,” he said. “This whole campaign has just been so built on them attacking each other rather than them trying to build themselves up, and I really think as a country we want candidates who can show that they’re respectable, mature adults.”
Many students shared that sentiment, which is why they all tapped feverishly during the last question, when an undecided voter asked each of the candidates to share one positive trait they see in the other.
Clinton answered by saying she respect’s Trump’s children, stating that their ability and devotion says a lot of about her opponent. Trump, however, delivered more direct compliments toward Clinton, answering that she fights hard and doesn’t quit or give up, which he considers a “very good trait.”
Because of this, Denis believed Trump won the point. “I think Hillary’s response was more calculated because she didn’t directly compliment Donald Trump,” he said. “By saying her character is very persistent and she never gives up and has a lot of tenacity, that’s like complimenting her, but at the same time not creating a concession for Donald.”
Follow CNN Health on Facebook and Twitter
Looking ahead to the third and final presidential debate on October 19, do these debate champs have any advice for the candidates?
“Answer the questions more directly,” said Joe Earles, a sophomore. “People like it when they see the candidate of their choice directly answering the question.”
What did you think about the second presidential debate? Share your thoughts with Kelly Wallace on Twitter @kellywallacetv.