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Two audience impressions of the CNN Town Halls

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Abraham Teuber: “OK Boomer:” Biden’s attempts to connect with Grinnell students miss the mark

Joe Biden’s visit to campus earlier this week propelled the Scarlet & Black staff into the thick of our 2020 election coverage. Candidates have been visiting town relatively consistently since last spring, but Grinnell’s role in the election seems to be increasing as that much-anticipated February caucus date grows nearer. Biden came to campus accompanied by CNN, making the event a little more exciting.

While CNN restricted other media and press from covering the event, I managed to be lucky enough to secure a ticket and covered Joe’s town hall using a platform near and dear to my heart: Twitter. While it doesn’t make much sense to summarize the ol’ VP’s answers in-depth due to the fact that the event was televised, here are some of my observations of our former Vice President when the cameras stopped rolling.

Fiji Water is either CNN or Joe Biden’s water of choice (not sure who’s responsible for those decisions). Before Joe even came on stage, a hard-working member of CNN’s crew carefully poured a bottle of everyone’s favorite overpriced bottled water into a signature Grinnell laurel-leaf branded glass. Apparently cutting down on single-use plastics isn’t a part of Joe’s climate plan!

Once Biden took the stage, it didn’t take long to realize he’s not the most eloquent. Critics have taken note of this in the past, but his relatively frequent verbal slip-ups and accidental word salads were much more noticeable while I listened to the ex-VP speak in person. One of my favorite moments of the event was when he seemed to accidentally utter everyone’s favorite four-letter expletive, but quickly corrected himself by saying “butchered” instead. (I’m not talking about “love” or “h-e-double hockey sticks” here).

From my place in the audience, mostly seated around other students, reactions to Biden’s answers seemed underwhelmed at best. At one point, I heard someone around me mutter “Okay, Boomer” in response to one of his answers. At a commercial break, a few students behind me expressed their disappointment at Biden’s answer to a woman who described her experiences navigating the healthcare system after her girlfriend experienced a severe head injury. Biden misunderstood or ignored the “girl-” prefix, referring to the woman’s significant other simply as “friend.”

Once CNN stopped broadcasting, Biden stuck around to talk to audience members who still had questions. While it was nice of him to follow up, he came across to me as rather condescending. Hints of a superiority complex jumped out when addressing students’ concerns on his climate plan, free college for all and mass incarceration. Biden also seems to be in the habit of making physical contact with those who ask him questions, such as placing both hands on their shoulders while making intense eye contact.

While Biden was clearly not wholly well-received by the audience at the CNN Town Hall, he clearly cared about addressing the students, staff and community members who showed up as individuals rather than just an audience. Towards the end of his chaotic talkback, he was surrounded by several visibly annoyed members of his staff pleading for him to stop obliging requests for handshakes and photos and leave the stage. He seemed more and more unfazed with each “Sir” they uttered.

Regardless, I suspect it will take more than a slew of haphazard selfies for this once-beloved boomer to secure the nomination.

Andy Pavey: “Donald Trump is a fraud and a failure!” Tom Steyer, a billionaire repentant

No skilled camerawork or tricks of the light could obscure the fact that Roberts Theatre, the site of Monday’s CNN Town Hall, was low on energy and interest from Iowans.

Many seats were left empty despite repeated attempts from both the College and CNN to generate interest on campus. And between commercial breaks, I heard Steyer’s answers being dissected – and not in a flattering way – by skeptical audience members around me.

The narrative that has defined Steyer’s campaign also loomed over the CNN Town Hall.

Why is Tom Steyer in the running at all? And can a billionaire feasibly represent or understand the plights of everyday Americans?

This was Tom Steyer’s night to challenge those critiques – and he certainly tried. When the cameras weren’t rolling, he schmoozed with Iowa Democratic Party Chair Toby Price, approached audience members who’d asked him questions earlier in the night, and attempted to rile up the audience after each commercial break with a smile on his face. Outfitted in a bright red tie and a folksy rainbow belt, he was trying his best to bring himself down to earth.

Despite these efforts, Steyer’s personal wealth was always in the periphery, if not tackled head-on during the event. Often, he brought it up himself, citing numerous personal projects and grassroots movements he’d created and mobilized using his wealth, like NextGen and the Need to Impeach initiative. He talked about how he and his wife had pledged to donate half of their fortune to charity during their lifetimes.

Tom Steyer tried to convince us that he has repented since his days as a hedge fund manager. Indeed, he’s used his wealth more responsibly than most other billionaires on the planet today. But he hasn’t done much to convince voters that his run for President is anything more than an ego trip by a man who believes he can buy his way into power. He hasn’t convinced us that he’s different from the rest.
Perhaps the most telling moment of the night came after the Town Hall’s conclusion.

As Steyer waved the audience goodbye, a man stood up in his chair and shouted, “Donald Trump is a fraud and a failure!” He wasn’t heckling, like many of my fellow audience members thought he was at first.

He was instead, of course, quoting the Steyer advertisement that every television and YouTube viewer knows. (Steyer has spent millions to dominate the airwaves in Iowa, first during his Need to Impeach initiative and now, during his Presidential campaign.) Everyone laughed in recognition, and Steyer threw his fist in the air, a wry smile on his face as he stepped down from the stage and waded into a crowd of audience members to answer questions.

Maybe it’s the small things – not the Presidency, nor a Democratic primary, nor even a noteworthy CNN Town Hall – that $50 million can buy. Maybe a little fame is all Steyer will get, and maybe that’s all he really deserves.

FOR MORE: Read News Editor Seth Taylor’s recap of the event here, or learn what happened after the cameras stopped rolling. And check out Abraham’s live coverage of the event on Twitter here.

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