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Election, Opinions, Projects
Swing State of Mind
Viewpoint: Travelers cool to a hot debate
September 30, 2016

By Daniel Serna 

Hofstra University hosted the first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump on Monday evening. What a spectacle.

Eighty-four million viewers tuned in to view the presidential debate which broke the 80 million viewer record during a 1980 Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter debate.

That evening, I flew from California to San Antonio after visiting family and had a layover at Phoenix’s Sky Harbor Airport. I knew I could watch the debate during my wait.

The journalistic curiosity wheels started turning in my head. I imagined what an interesting place an airport could be to watch a presidential debate.

When we think about the public sphere, are airports politically correct places where politics are too sensitive to be discussed among travelers?

No, I thought to myself, the airport would make a great public setting to watch one of the most anticipated debates in history.

Airports are usually diverse places and plenty of people would be interested in the debate, I thought. I could not wait to watch how other people viewed the two presidential candidates.

How will people react if Trump has an outburst? What if two passengers at the airport have a argument over the debate?

How will Hillary handle Trump’s usual over-dramatic personality?

Yes, I’m thinking all of this. Suddenly we began descending to land while thoughts of “#PhoenixDebateWatchParty” floated in my head. By the way, that hashtag won’t work. Too long.

As I walk up the ramp into the terminal I am getting excited about what could be one of the best places to watch a presidential debate. I have experienced great conversations in airports with random travelers but have never discussed politics there. I was looking forward to this layover being a first.

As I looked around, I felt like a sociologist or a National Geographic photographer studying airport inhabitants on assignment.

Here’s what I saw…

Walking to my gate in the Southwest Airlines section of the airport, I noticed a single television airing the debate. It was in the food court area and muted. The other televisions showed NFL action with audio and captions.

A bar in the section of airport had two televisions. Both tuned to NFL football games. Patrons at the bar were excitedly cheering on the games, as if there was no debate.

Looking around, I suddenly felt the divide between travelers invested in the debate and those who wanted nothing to do with it.

Most debate watchers were male minorities, which is interesting to me being a male and minority. Only 28 percent of minorities voted in the 2012 election, according to the PEW Research Center.

When the debate got heated I noticed no dramatic reactions.

When Donald Trump expressed his approval for “stop and frisk,” and his desire for “law and order” in our country, I noticed a few sighs and facial expressions.

What happened to the watch party I dreamed up? No one was interacting.

Yes, there was diversity as I predicted, but no reactions and interactions.

This might be the college student in me, but I thought I was going to observe some civil, presidential nominee discourse between travelers because the debate would be happening and airports are public diverse environments.  

My two hour layover in Phoenix came to end as my flight began to board. I started to process what I had just observed in the airport.

I must admit the lack of enthusiasm and interaction during the debate disappointed and surprised me. #WatchPartyCancelled.

People are so opinionated on social media but in this public social setting, an airport and I hear no election discussion or debate talk at all.

What makes people so willing to sound off politically on social media, but so careful and private in this airport?

As I flew from Phoenix to San Antonio, it hit me, NEUTRALITY! Yes, under usual circumstances, the airport is a social place. With this presidential election producing so much tension and division in our country, the travelers seemed to have an unsaid agreement to keep this place civil and neutral.

 

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