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Pittsburgh college student political leaders react to presidential debate

Joe Biden (left) and Donald Trump (right) speak into microphones
Alex Brandon
In this combination photo, President Joe Biden speaks May 2, 2024, in Wilmington, N.C., left, and Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally, May 1, 2024, in Waukesha, Wis.

Thousands of young college students, many preparing to vote in their first presidential election, tuned into CNN’s presidential debate last Thursday. For 90 minutes, they watched former president Donald Trump and President Joe Biden debate the most pressing issues of the economy, abortion access, immigration and their respective golf handicaps.

While both presidential candidates are nearing or past 80 years old, they now must appeal to the millions of 18 to 22-year-olds who gained the right to vote since 2020.

Political climates on campus

Across the aisle and beyond it, Pittsburgh’s student leaders at the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University and Point Park University mostly agreed that college voters are unenthused by their choices this election.

Anthony Cacciato, president of the CMU College Republicans, said there are some Republican voters who see Trump as a solution to the issues they had with the Biden administration, but that there are many in both parties whose votes are based solely on damage control.

“[There are Republicans] that feel as though there are issues with [Trump’s] policy or him as an individual, but because of the performance of the Biden administration, feel that they need to act in order to ensure that Biden doesn't have a second term,” Cacciato said. “Among Democrats, I feel that, for the most part, nobody's excited to vote for Biden. The threat posed by Trump is something that they feel forces them to vote for Biden, even if they themselves are not enthusiastic about him.”

Kyle MacLaughlin and Dillion Peterson, president and vice president respectively of Point Park’s Student Government Association, said that at a more left-leaning, queer school like Point Park, most students are scared for the upcoming election.

“The only consistent response across everybody I've interacted with has been fear,” Peterson said. “I think a lot of the things we've heard have been the complete opposite of excitement and have been like genuine stomach aches.”

“I think people feel they don't have any alternative that will be positive for them,” MacLaughlin added.

“We have Trump, on one hand, who is a blatant liar, who's a convicted felon and has been impeached two times…His general rhetoric and the way he presents himself is just not appealing to young people,” said communications director for the Pitt College Democrats Mary Boyd. “But then, on the other hand, we have Biden, and I know from a lot of my peers, they say that Biden might not be as up for the job given his age.”

Although college voters seem generally disillusioned by their prospects this election, they are by no means politically disimpassioned. Though Cacciato mentioned that a campus like CMU’s can be somewhat apathetic, both the College Republicans and Democrats at Pitt said students are excited to vote, and all have their own strong political opinions.

Trump and Biden on students’ issues

Every student leader who spoke with WESA was quick to mention the war in Gaza as an important issue for Pittsburgh voters. Over the past few months, the University of Pittsburgh saw the rise and fall of two encampment protests calling for university divestment from Israeli-affiliated institutions.

Boyd said the conflict is a key issue, but the candidates’ responses when asked about the war during the debate were underwhelming.

“I don't think that either candidate fully answered that question to their best ability,” she said. “It was kind of unclear, in my opinion, the true answers they were trying to give. But I don't think that Trump saying that Israel should just end it all would be something that college students like to hear.”

Many leaders on both sides also brought up abortion as an important issue for college voters — but they did not agree on the quality of Trump’s response. Peterson and Boyd criticized Trump’s appeal to “post-birth abortions,” which they said was a blatant lie, whereas Cacciato and Pitt College Republicans president Josh Minsky believed the former president’s stance was more moderate in saying he would leave the decision up to the states.

“I think that was probably one of the best-presented issues of the night,” Cacciato said.

Cacciato highlighted the economy as an especially important issue for college students, who either now or in the near future will be financially independent from their parents.

“The biggest thing that I myself and many people that I speak to are worried about is the economy that they are set to inherit,” he said. “Affordability is a huge concern. A lot of people are ready to graduate and go into a job market where a lot of the prospects for not only employment, but their ability to afford food and afford housing is in the balance.”

Peterson said topics like childcare, that are especially important at a nontraditional school like Point Park with many single parents, were also left largely unanswered.

“They asked about childcare as well as food insecurity questions, and it was met with answers that were actually just not about the questions,” he said.

Peterson wasn’t alone in his sentiment — many student leaders expressed annoyance at the lack of focus and personal attacks displayed at the debate.

“Biden just generally reacted to Trump not answering a question,” Minsky said. “So any question that Trump wouldn't answer, Biden wouldn't answer because he’d get distracted…We obviously had that whole spat about the golf tournament, which was silly.”

“The amount of time they spent making some weird comment about the previous question or insulting each other or talking about their golf scores or their weight and height was nonsensical,” MacLaughlin said. “And in between, it was either people saying horrible things about immigrants or just mumbling and drooling at the camera.”

Looking to November

Biden won Pennsylvania in 2020 by a mere 80,000 votes, and many believe that 2024 will be another very close race for the swing state.

Trump is ahead in state and national polls as of July 1, and Minsky suspects Trump may not need the young vote to secure Pennsylvania.

“I think that obviously young people are not going to be voting for Trump. He's not popular with young people for a variety of reasons,” Minsky said. “Republicans always — especially Trump — overperform in the polls. And now Trump is up in the polls. So it's looking like he's going to win.”

Boyd believes college students will play a large role in trying to keep Pennsylvania blue.

“With this new batch of college voters, I'm hoping that it sways a little bit more in [Biden’s] favor, but it's really going to be up to the work of grassroots organizers,” she said. “If we want to push Biden to go further than he did last time, it's really going to be up to the work of college activists.”

Though many of Pittsburgh’s college voters are disappointed in their options for president, their vote holds more weight than they might want it to. Pittsburgh alone has over 100,000 undergraduate students — more voters than Trump led with in Pennsylvania in 2016 and Biden in 2020.

“I think that as things stand right now, Pennsylvania's going to be the closest state in the nation,” Cacciato said. “I think that Pennsylvania is probably the most emblematic of the national political environment, and I think what happens in Pennsylvania will be representative of what happens nationally in November.”

Thomas is a rising senior at the University of Pittsburgh pursuing a double major in Politics and Philosophy and English Writing. They are currently the opinions editor at The Pitt News, the content manager for Policy and Political Review and a head writer for Pitt's best and only late night talk show, Pitt Tonight.