It was the third and final presidential debate of the 2016 election cycle, and at this point most people were probably just watching in order to better get the jokes on the next episode of Saturday Night Live. But for me it was a whole new world. I was watching it with a real, honest to God undecided voter.
I was watching with my dad.
“Is there a category for hold-outs?” He asked me when I asked his presidential preference. Like a lot of Nebraskans, he doesn’t necessarily identify as a Republican, per se, but falls into that long line of “Reagan Democrats” who’ve come to keep the heartland red as a Cornhusker football game. If he had his druthers, Ohio Governor John Kasich would be up at the podium—a little less orange, a great deal less explosive, and a whole lot more palatable to those who see the next president’s role as one that should do more than just “shake up Washington.”
Nebraska voters are a mixed bag, and they are even bigger wild cards this year, when there are a few tight electoral-vote scenarios that could actually involve Nebraska’s split electoral votes (the state does not give all voters to a single candidate) being the deciding factor in who occupies the White House. The state’s residents have been inundated with phone calls, political ads, and endless, ceaseless campaigning. And for a voter like my father, who isn’t happy with either choice, it’s an exasperating one.
Listening to the start of the debate, though, it’s clear that we have a lot in common. “It’s the media,” he noted, listening to George Stephanopoulos practically bang a ringside bell prior to the debate. “They set this whole thing up like it’s a sporting event.”
Just before the debate began, an ABC pundit anticipated that this round would be the most combatitive one yet—and Republican nominee Donald Trump did not disappoint. From his early taunts about seeing Democratic rival Hillary Clinton “angry” after the Supreme Court ruling against gun control to calling her a "nasty woman," to his claims that she wanted to “rip babies out of the womb four days before birth,” Trump was eager to get a rise from the former secretary of State. (Note to the Donald: You can't get an abortion two or three days before birth.)
“You’re the puppet!” Trump hollered at Clinton after a testy fight over Wikileaks, the potential involvement of Russia in the American election, and whether Russia’s Vladimir Putin wanted Trump to be president because he would make the best puppet on the seat of power.
You would think that an energetic defense of Putin and a full-throated endorsement of more countries obtaining nuclear weapons would turn off more voters, but the segue into economics was the sort that makes the die-hard fiscal conservatives unable to just say “Clinton” and move on. A promise to cut taxes is going to go a long way toward forgiving a bombastic personality and a tendency to snap like a 5-year-old who was told his Minecraft time was over and he had to go to bed. Even a retiree like my father hears words like “35 percent tax for businesses” and can’t help but get antsy.
But Hillary Clinton, as ever, came prepared. In one of the finest moments of all these debates, she delivered her most clearly stated defense of reproductive rights, in response to debate moderator Chris Wallace's question on late-term abortions. She said "Roe v. Wade very clearly sets out that there can be regulations on abortion so long as the life and the health of the mother are taken into account. And when I voted as a senator, I did not think that was the case. The kinds of cases that fall at the end of pregnancy are often the most heartbreaking, painful decisions for families to make. I have met with women who have, toward the end of their pregnancy, get the worst news one could get, that their health is in jeopardy if they continue to carry to term or that something terrible has happened or just been discovered about the pregnancy. I do not think the U.S. government should be stepping in and making those most personal of decisions. So, you can regulate, if you are doing so with the life and the health of the mother taken into account."
Clinton’s unwavering and direct support of abortion rights—citing clearly that it is not the government who should be involved in a decision and reminding voters that the states that Trump claims should get to decide on abortion if the courts overturn Roe v. Wade are the same ones who have decimated access over the last six years—was a clear contrast to Trump’s petulant and graphic instance that all abortion basically happen a week before birth. Trump’s abortion arguments were straight from the anti-abortion movement handbook, pivot straight to so-called “partial birth abortion” and insist a fetus has all rights while ignoring any impact on the person carrying it. For me as an abortion-rights advocate, it was the clearest example of what was at stake in this election and why Clinton must win. To my father, a “hard cases”-exceptions-only believer, it was one of the moments where Trump may have managed to have some impact.
But for most of the evening, Trump spewed his meme-worthy, unparse-able word salad—tonight, in two languages, because we apparently have some “bad hombres!” we need to kick out. Though once we got into the “fitness for president” portion of the debate, my father lost interest. “I don’t understand why this even matters,” he said, turning back to his phone. I thought he was dutifully fact-checking the debate as we went. “No, he’s playing a game,” my stepmother said, smiling.
I couldn’t help but argue with the television by this point, amazed as Trump was claiming that every woman who accused him of unwanted sexual contact wanted fame. Or that she was trying to help Hillary Clinton. Or that Clinton, with the help of President Barack Obama, was paying people to provoke violence at Trump’s campaign rally. He even said he never made fun of a reporter with a disability, despite the fact this irrefutable video showing him do just that.
“No audience feedback!” my dad chastised me repeatedly.
But as we neared the end, even he was starting to yell a little. “We’ve heard this already, Donald!” he snarked at the screen.
“No audience feedback!” I replied.
“My house, my rules. This isn’t a democracy.”
Unlike me, who was terrified the moment Trump announced that he wouldn’t necessarily take the results of the election as legitimate, my father was far less bothered, believing that this was another example of the media focusing on unimportant issues that don’t have any impact on the presidency itself, but were being thrown out to create drama and soundbites for their audience. “Of course he’s not going to call for unity. Why would he? Who does? Why does this even matter?” my dad asked.
As the national-debt discussion ensued, the whole house sighed in relief—primarily because it was mentioned as the last segment. But as it quickly wrapped up, it became apparently that my undecided voter family was still just as undecided as before.
“We talk about this all the time. When we’re out with our friends, none of us know what we are going to do,” my dad admitted. He’s worried that Clinton is seen as weak among foreign powers, that her term would continue Obama administration policies like the Affordable Care Act, which he sees as a failure from an insurance industry standpoint, and that Democrats continuing to lead the country won’t bring about any necessary change when it comes to dealing with other countries or issues like Social Security and Medicare.
Then again, he’s also pretty sure Trump would be a disaster as president. But, he admits, at least it will be something different. “All of the other people running, they are all politicians,” he said. “They all flip flop. Politicians say one thing, do something else. Trump is a businessman. He may not say things well, but he says what he really means, so at least you know what you are getting. Maybe that is what we need as a country.”
In the end, with only a few weeks left, his decision very well may lie in who might be second in command. “If Trump does win, maybe he’ll say something awful and get impeached,” he mused. “Actually, that could happen to Clinton, too.”
Looks like maybe we need a second vice-presidential debate now, too. If so, I’ll be sure to watch with him again.
(This article approved by my father)