Civility loses second debate, says NCR panel of millennial Catholic women

This story appears in the Election 2016 feature series. View the full series.
Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump, left, and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speak during their Oct. 9 presidential town hall debate at Washington University in St. Louis. (CNS photo/Jim Young, Reuters)
Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump, left, and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speak during their Oct. 9 presidential town hall debate at Washington University in St. Louis. (CNS photo/Jim Young, Reuters)

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The second presidential debate was ugly and mean, and according to most of the panel of Catholic millennial women NCR polled to assess it, the division on display mirrors the division in the country. And that worries them.

The beginning of the debate Sunday night on the campus of Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., "was very, very horrific … very, very negative," said Nelly Ramos, 25, from Lancaster, Pa., who has not settled on a candidate yet*. "It's kind of scary to think that these two candidates are running for [president of] our country."

The Republican candidate Donald Trump repeatedly called Democratic contender Hillary Clinton a liar, and once "the devil" and said she would be in jail if he wins the election. Clinton rejoined by declaring Trump unfit for the presidency and that he "lives in an alternative reality."

Nicole Anna Jennings, 23, of Mt. Vernon, Wash., a reporter for a local newspaper, was angered by the debate. "[The candidates] spent more time taking personal jabs at one another -- who should've apologized to whom for what, etc. -- than discussing the issues," she said.

Still, Jennings, who had been a Trump supporter, changed to undecided over the weekend "due to recent news," referring to the release of a video from 2005 showing Trump using extremely lewd language in discussing women.

The candidates' character seemed to be the focus of the debate Sunday night. In fact, it was nearly 30 minutes into the 90-minute televised program before a straightforward policy question was asked.

Trump faced tremendous pressure after the release of that video. But with senior Republican officials and politicians renouncing support for their party's candidate, Trump remained defiant. He refused to consider dropping out of the race; he ridiculed Republicans who questioned his fitness. And shortly before the debate opened, Trump hosted a Facebook Live video featuring three women who have accused former President Bill Clinton of sexual impropriety.

At the debate, meanwhile, Hillary Clinton faced questions from Trump, the moderators Martha Raddatz of ABC and Anderson Cooper of CNN, and the audience in this "town hall" style debate, about her use of a private email server while secretary of state.

To assess the candidates during this debate, NCR assembled a panel of seven millennial Catholic women. Three identified themselves as Clinton supporters, with two saying now more than ever. Three said they voted Republican in the last election, but only one of these said she would vote for Trump; a second is exploring third party candidates, and the third has withdrawn support from Trump. Our seventh Millennial Catholic voter said she would vote for one of the candidates on Election Day Nov. 8, but didn’t know which one yet.

Beth Giordano, 27, of Downingtown, Pa., is a recent graduate of the Augustine Institute. She voted for Romney in 2012 and said, "I've been waiting months for Donald Trump to do or say something that would convince me that voting for him is a good idea. Unfortunately, the list of reasons not to vote for him grows almost daily."

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Beth Giordano, Nelly Ramos, Pamila Jaszkowiak with her husband Jason, and Mary Grace Gorman

"As it stands, I am unable to support either main party candidate for president. Whether I'll vote third party, write-in, or just vote down ticket, I have yet to decide," Giordano told NCR Sunday night.

Mary Grace Gorman, 18, attends Washington University -- but did not get into the debate venue -- and will be casting an absentee ballot to vote in her home town of Wooster, Ohio. She is a solid Clinton supporter, a position strengthened by learning more about Clinton's public service record, particularly during the Democratic National Convention.

"Before, I kind of thought of her as a pretty good candidate, not anybody's top choice by any means but an all-right candidate for the Democrats," Gorman told NCR. "But actually hearing all of the different ways she's worked to defend those without a voice made her a candidate that I actually like personally as opposed to just being the lesser of two evils."

Jennings, the former Trump supporter turned undecided, said: "Both candidates behaved the way I expected they would, which is to say very badly. If anything, this debate has just made me feel even more depressed and politically apathetic about this election."

Trump supporter Pamila Jaszkowiak, 29, of Boise, Idaho, said the debate reinforced her belief that Trump is the winning candidate, though she wished the candidates had spent more time on "the issues that truly matter" and less on slandering each other.

Two of the Clinton supporters felt put off by the debate, and the election campaign in general.

"I think that honestly I feel so exhausted about the amount of division and hatred in the campaign," said Casey Stanton, 31, a chaplain intern at the Durham veterans' hospital in Durham, N.C. She voted for Barack Obama in 2012 and plans to vote for Clinton this year.

"I'm struggling to believe that the future of our country and even our world -- given such a globalized society -- hinges on this election," said Becky Schwantes-An, 33, a clinical social worker in Baltimore and a Clinton supporter. She became so agitated during the debate that her husband suggest they switch off the television.

But Stanton and Schwantes-An laid the blame for the divisiveness on the Republican candidate. "I am just utterly appalled by Donald Trump and that he is the Republican nominee. He should not be on that stage with Hillary Clinton. It's utterly disrespectful to all that she's worked for, done, all that she knows," Schwantes-An said.

Stanton said the debate skipped over a lot of issues that are common concerns for all voters. "Will I ever afford to buy a house? My husband and I ask this question all the time. Will we be able to afford retirement? Will we be we be able to go on vacation. Will we live in a safe community?

"I feel like those are all lost in rhetoric that is aimed at division and fear. And I do feel like Trump is the driver of that. There are times when [Clinton] plays into it," Stanton said. "What do we look like in our country the day after the election? How do we heal from this? How do we recover?"

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Becky Schwantes-An, Casey Stanton, and Nicole Anna Jennings

Following are some of the answers to some of the questions NCR asked.

NCR: In the wake of the lewd tape interview made public this week, Mrs. Clinton said Mr. Trump is "unfit" to be president. Mr. Trump apologized but also dismissed the conversation as "locker room talk." How do you respond to that?

Stanton: "I think that it was a smart move for her to make, to just call out the question fundamentally whether he is suited to be in the White House. What does this new tape tell us about who he is? I think a lot of people in the Republican Party who agree with that, too."

Jennings: "I would like to note that this question was worded in a way to create a bias against Trump because it contained the word 'lewd,' which is a negative adjective. That said, there is no excuse for Trump's sexist statements this week, and they have certainly made me dislike him more than I already did. What Trump clearly doesn't understand is that his words represent the terrifying world that women live in every day. … With these statements, Trump has shown that he has no class, no respect for women, and thinks that his wealth and power put him above the rules of morality and decency."

Schwantes-An: "He's probably sorry he said it. I don't know if he's sorry he meant it. … I don't think there's any genuine apology there." She continued: "Words are not just words. They are incredibly powerful. They set the tone for our entire society." As a feminist Catholic woman who didn't have brothers, Schwantes-An said that she is trying to raise her son in a society with such "toxic masculinity" permeating it. She's thinking of her son hearing this sort of thing in a locker room. "I pray that he has values instilled in him from our family, from our faith, from our church community, that he would stand up and tell them how degrading that is to women and how wrong it is to even think it let alone do it."

Jaszkowiak: "[Trump's] comments about women do not surprise me, but it does not have an effect on my vote. The U.S. has come a long way in the 11 years since that video was taken. I work in an industry that is dominated by men -- electrical engineering, power utilities -- and I have heard stories of the way women were talked about even a decade ago that would not be whispered now. The past is the past. He's apologized and it's time to move on.

"Clinton's stance on women is overkill. She is fighting battles long fought -- women have equal pay and where they do not have it, they have grounds for obtaining it. She seems to buy into this idea of new feminism that women need to be the men, and I'm sorry, I am proud to be a woman and have no desire to see her perspective of feminism to be pushed." 

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Giordano: "The comments were disgusting. She can claim he's unfit but that doesn't make her any more fit."

Gorman: "It's just disgusting to me. I've been following the campaign very closely from the beginning, and every time that Trump has said something horrible, everybody has kind of groaned and moved on, but that one really even managed to surprise me. … His apology was 'Yeah, I apologize but Bill Clinton is worse than me,' which is not a real apology. And also the way that it's been reported as 'lewd comments,' I think it goes further even than that in terms of condoning sexual assault. So that whole story has been really upsetting to me overall. … I do agree that that's very disqualifying for him to be president."

Ramos: "It is locker room talk, but it is who you are, [and] you're running for the president of the U.S. You should really minimize your locker room talk or have no locker room talk at all, everyone is depending on you." Clinton's comment at the beginning of the debate was really strong, Ramos said, "Do we really want someone like this [as president]? [Is Trump] really fit to be our president  and commander-in-chief?"

NCR: What were your immediate impressions of the debate?

Ramos: "I could tell right away that Trump was very stressed out from this weekend and everything, losing Republicans and things like that, you could just tell."

Jaszkowiak: "I agree with Trump's response about the locker room talk -- we have bigger issues to take on. I am frustrated that Hillary was given so much time to discuss Trump's un-fitness to the presidency without interruption. So much time of the debate was given to the candidates slandering each other."

Schwantes-An: "I was extremely upset for most of the debate. … It came across as a reality TV show. That's what [Trump] does and that's what he thinks this is. It's not."

Jennings: "The moderators seemed a little more biased against Trump. They pointed out every time that he went overtime, but they seemed to forget that Clinton did quite a bit of interrupting and talking over people herself, going nearly a minute overtime in one case."

Giordano: "It's very clear that this election is more about voting against someone rather than ringing endorsements of either candidate. Hillary Clinton is a deeply corrupt political figure, and Donald Trump is morally corrupt, if nothing else. Neither represent my values, which is why I am unable to support them."

Stanton: "An aha moment for me was when [Trump] talked about radical Islamic terror and how important it is to call it that. And when Hillary refused to do so and said we are not at war with Islam. It clicked for me what is at stake in just the word choices here, and the way in which the rhetoric of radical Islamic terror actually feeds groups like ISIS. I didn't understand what was at stake in terms of the naming of things until this debate."

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NCR: Was there any point in the debate where you felt hopeful? 

Jaszkowiak: "Trump's view on making America strong, strong enough to fix some of the conflicts overseas, particular ISIS. If we don't fight ISIS, ISIS will fight us -- just like Pearl Harbor."

Jennings: "When Trump said Clinton would be in jail if he were in charge, that was rather funny and rather a nice thing to picture, but there is not much in this debate that I would describe with the word 'hopeful.' I did like when Trump talked about repealing Obamacare, which is something I think is necessary."

Schwantes-An: "[Clinton] is hopeful about actual issues, like when she says she will do her best to protect families. When she spoke about wanting to embrace Syrian refugees. When she talked about how important awareness about sexual assault is. Maybe we are getting somewhere in our country by talking about these issues. The Trumps of the world, I don't know if they will ever get it. Really men need to use their privilege to have these conversations with other men and call them out when there's 'locker room conversation.' That Anderson Cooper did that during the debate, I found that hopeful."

Several of the panelists also commented on the final question of the night, when a member of the town hall audience asked if each candidate could say something positive about the other. Clinton complimented Trump on his children. Trump said he liked that Clinton is a fighter who never gives up.

Stanton: "Whenever [Clinton] talks about being for women and children and wanting to be president for all Americans and work across party lines, I believe her when she says it. I don't believe she is completely in line with my Catholic faith, but I feel like she is middle of the road and will get things done in a way that it's been hard to do so in the last six years. I have a hard time even knowing what [Trump] is talking about. He just feels like a bully to me when he talks. … [He] is driven by power and control ... He'll say anything."

Ramos: "It was a phenomenal way to end the debate tonight because it was kind of negative in the beginning."

Gorman: "[I] especially liked the last question, thought it was a nice way to end the conversation on a bit of a positive note, which I was totally not expecting. … I was very surprised by the way Trump answered the final question and that he was able to sit himself down and give a genuine compliment to Hillary Clinton. I was expecting sort of a backhanded remark from him. … I think Clinton's comment could have been portrayed as a little bit of a backhanded compliment." But, Gorman said, she would give her the benefit of the doubt.

Jennings: "Trump gave a legitimate compliment about Clinton's character, while she avoided the question by complimenting Trump's children, gave an insult against Trump, and went on to talk about herself."

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NCR: Since you are a Catholic voter, how has your religion influenced how you feel about this campaign or this election? 

Ramos: "So one of the big things that we always look at is that life is very important and then other issues as well, like immigration … and treating people with respect. I think at one point [Clinton] did mention that if she is president that we will have respect for each other, or at least try to work that way together. I think that's a big thing that we're taught in our church all the time."

Giordano: "[Abortion] came up briefly when [Clinton] was talking about appointing Supreme Court justices, [and she said] she would recommend justices who would uphold Roe v. Wade because anything else would take us backwards. I wasn't satisfied at all. Probably for my Catholic faith, the issue of life is the biggest issue. There are a lot of dangers out there right now, but the one that reflects the most on us is how we view life. As a Catholic, I can't ignore that one. … I feel like my moral conscience is informed by my faith. I can't separate the two. That's a huge factor in how I view the candidates." [Trump said he would appoint to the Supreme Court justices in the mold of the late Justice Anton Scalia.]

Stanton: "I feel deeply informed by Catholic social teaching -- the dignity of work and the ideas that the government should be concerned with the common good. My own discomfort is that sense that this campaign is rooted in dividing Americans. That feels like it cuts against what my faith would say. Our responsibility in public life is to be pursuing the common good. And with a particular concern for the poor and the migrant and the stranger and the refugee. While I recognize that the Supreme Court is a huge piece of what is at stake, [and Clinton] would appoint justices who would uphold Roe v. Wade, I feel like this election isn't a referendum on abortion. Abortion just gets used to divide the Catholic vote."

Gorman: "I think that it has really made me look in terms of the way each candidate treats other people and to look at them more holistically." Gorman said she's used to official church statements urging people to vote for the candidate who is anti-abortion. "But now I think we're hearing more [messages like] vote for the candidate who is pro-life, meaning pro-tolerance and pro helping immigrants and refugees, and pro helping the poor and being kind toward everyone, whether they be people of other races, being respectful toward women.

"I think that could sort of reshape the direction of American Catholic politics, which is exciting to me. … With today's modern parties, it's always been kind of interesting to me that people think that all Catholics are conservative, because I think that at the heart of Catholicism is love for one's neighbor. … I want to look for which candidate is going to do the most to help others."

Jaszkowiak: "I morally cannot vote for [Clinton]. She is an advocate for Planned Parenthood and my Catholic faith requires me to value life no matter how small or old or disabled."

Schwantes-An: "My passion for justice and equity in the world is firmly founded in my Catholic faith, Catholic social teaching, and my upbringing. … I can't look at any of this without seeing the bigger picture of how we are connected. … We've made progress. Many of our Catholic values have been worked into some of the social policies of our country. … We bring our faith to the table, but how do we do that being an American in the world?"

Jennings: My religion makes me want to vote for a moral person, someone I feel like carries out Jesus's message on earth. Ideally, the person for whom I vote should be someone I could see myself being friends with, having dinner with. The two candidates we have before us are the embodiment of greed, corruption, dishonesty, unchecked pride, deception — in short, the embodiment of evil."

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NCR: Was there a moment when you said to yourself "that's my candidate" or "I could never vote for that person"?

Ramos: "Just when I thought I was with one party and then I'd be like 'wow, maybe not.' … Hearing both candidates bad-mouthing about each other and … thinking what will our country look like if they continue this kind of deal? I didn't have a feeling that this will be or this won't be [my candidate] because I have a lot of mixed feelings about both."

Gorman: "I felt very proud when Clinton was talking to the Muslim woman [saying] this is the America we stand for, where everyone can fit in and have a place. … Whereas the moment when I was thinking 'this is the candidate I would never vote for' was when Trump would just completely and blatantly lie about things that you can fact check on the spot, but he just doesn't acknowledge that there's a reality outside of what exists in his own head."

Jaszkowiak: "Trump's stance on ISIS -- ISIS is a big problem that needs to be taken head on before they get any stronger. Trump's stance to take ISIS on and win, I believe that he could accomplish this. I don't believe that [Clinton] will take ISIS on. [And] when Trump discussed his plan for fixing the health care system."

Jennings: "Trump stated that Muslims must report problems in America, which I think is important. And it is true that Obama and Clinton won't say "radical Islamic terrorists," and I believe that in order to face the enemy, you must be aware of and acknowledge who the enemy is. … I'm not sure if Clinton will be able to work with Muslim nations to defeat ISIS as she says. I like the strong stance Trump takes in his determination to wipe out terrorism."

Giordano: "However inappropriate it was, Trump's line 'because if I was president you'd be in jail' made me laugh. … I think it's a consequential election. I just don't feel that either of them will provide the country with good consequences."

NCR didn't ask about it, but two of our panelists commented on Trump's pacing during the town hall event, noting that he seemed to be following Clinton:

Gorman: "He wouldn't sit down; he was always trying to be in the background of her shot and was always trying to pounce on her. It was frustrating to watch. The maturity difference between the candidates was very apparent to me watching this debate."

Schwantes-An: "I was afraid for Hillary Clinton's safety. [Trump] was standing over her [while she answered questions]. Really imposing. And I'm not saying that because she's a woman and is physically smaller than he. The way he was acting was so confrontational. … It was incredibly domineering, and it was an abuse of the entire process."

NCR: Have you decided how you will vote this year?

Jennings: "No, and to be honest I feel like not voting at all, except for when I consider the countless lives throughout American history that have been lost in the fight for democracy, not to mention the suffragettes who fought for my right as a woman to vote, I feel like it is my duty to vote for someone."

NCR: You said immigration reform is important to you. Were you satisfied with how the candidates addressed this issue?

Schwantes-An: "Trump, no." She said that all he did was fear-mongering, talking about drugs coming over the border. "What we really need is actual immigration reform. We need immigrants in this country. They enrich our lives, and they always have." The issue only came up in a "menacing" way, she said, adding that Trump didn't even answer the question about humanitarian crisis in Syria. Schwantes-An said that Clinton did talk specifically about it and said we want to increase the number of refugees and to tell them they will be safe here. But also to do humanitarian work in Syria. "We don't want all of Syria to be here, because they deserve to live in their ancient homeland," she said.

[NCR editor Dennis Coday wrote this story based on interviews conducted by NCR staff writer Brian Roewe, NCR Bertelsen interns Traci Badalucco and  Kristen Daniels, and NCR contributors Elizabeth Eisenstadt Evans, Peter Feuerherd, Menachem Wecker, Amy Morris Young and Dan Morris Young.]

*An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that Nelly Ramos was supporting Hillary Clinton. Ramos is undecided.

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