At Georgia debate watch parties, cheer for Republicans and worry for Democrats

In the banquet hall of an Atlanta-area gun store, Republicans cheered as President Biden stumbled at times and halted through some answers in Thursday’s debate. At one point, organizers of the Cobb County Republican gathering turned on closed captioning to better understand what he was saying, and they laughed when former president Donald Trump said he couldn’t understand Biden either.

Twenty miles away, young Democrats groaned and exchanged worried looks at a packed Democratic Party office in Gwinnett County. Over pizzas and beers, several sporadically cheered for Biden when he threw jabs at Trump over his recent felony conviction. But they grew quiet when Biden misspoke or inexplicably changed subjects.

Georgia, which flipped blue in 2020 and had the closest margin of any state, is one of the most hard-fought battlegrounds for Biden and Trump in November. And in the suburbs of Atlanta, where an influx of minorities and transplants has made former GOP strongholds increasingly competitive, Democrats and Republicans are looking to sway key voter blocs that have turned away from both candidates this cycle: young voters disillusioned with the incumbent and suburban women wary of a second Trump term.

And at the two watch parties just miles from the CNN studios where the candidates debated, a path to victory looked dire for Biden, who at times tripped over his words and lines of argument and spoke in a raspy voice, exacerbating concerns that the 81-year-old lacked stamina as his 78-year-old rival battered him with aggression and baseless claims.

Political operatives have long warned that Trump’s crass language and name-calling has turned off women, and Biden appeared to needle him on some of his more coarse comments, including his calling veterans who died in combat “suckers” and “losers.”

But Biden’s line of attack didn’t land among women at the Republican event in Cobb County.

Ginny Choate, 73, rolled her eyes at the mention and said she believed it was made up. Sure, Trump had a crude way of speaking, but she chalked it up to his New York roots. She said she didn’t understand why some other suburban women took issue.

“They need to get over it,” she declared.

“We’re not having dinner with a queen,” said Kitty Bray, a mother of three. “We’re running a country.”

Throughout the debate, Trump made dozens of false claims, drawing jeers at the Democratic event. Attendees often yelled at the screen as Trump responded to questions, including when he falsely asserted a Republican talking point that Democrats support abortions even “after birth.” At one point, one attendee yelled: “That’s just a baldfaced lie!”

They also yelled as Trump falsely repeated the claim that he requested 10,000 National Guard troops before the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and deflected questions about his role in it.

Polling has shown that voters are increasingly concerned about Biden’s age, and supporters had hoped the debate would offer a moment for him to showcase competency and vitality. Yet, young voters at the Democratic event in Gwinnett County shook their heads when Biden cut off his answer to an abortion question — a highly motivating issue for the Democratic base — and confusingly pivoted to talk about a “young woman who just was murdered” by an immigrant.

Christy Lam, 21, said the debate was a reminder of how old both candidates are and the need for younger alternatives. At this point, she said, she can’t wait for the election to be over to look toward 2028.

“I need them all to retire,” said Lam, a full-time student. “I feel like these cannot be the best options we have. We’ve got to do better in the next presidential election.”

Biden beat Trump by a small margin in this state in 2020, but The Washington Post’s polling average has Trump leading there by five points. Still, in the heavily contested suburbs of Atlanta, Trump’s path is not exactly smooth.

As more people of color have moved out of the city in recent years, the suburbs have increasingly become more Democratic, as evident by Trump’s lack of success there in the last two cycles. He has sought to close the gap by appealing to suburban women, an electorate he lost in 2020.

Many of the suburban Republican women gathered at the Adventure Outdoors store seemed confident the former president could pull it off. Many said that immigration remains a top issue for them and that Trump had done more to address border crossings.

Sylidia Italiano, a 54-year-old Kennesaw business executive, compared her voting for Trump to hiring someone with an unappealing personality but a strong work ethic. blamed Biden for fentanyl deaths — an issue that Trump has falsely sought to blame on immigration — and grew furious when Biden said during the debate that authorities have stemmed the flow of fentanyl into the country. (Fentanyl deaths accelerated at a faster pace during Trump’s presidency than Biden’s, fueled by the coronavirus pandemic.)

“Tell my friend who had two children die,” Italiano shouted at the screen.

Many of the women said they didn’t understand Biden’s policies, or really much of what he said during the debate.

Latona Disher, who works for the Cobb County Republican Party, described Trump as “disciplined” and said Biden was incoherent and speeding through his words.

“It’s a conversation for Trump,” she said. “For Biden, it’s a struggle.”

In interviews at the Gwinnett County watch party, younger Democrats similarly had reservations about how Biden presented himself.

Alika Yvette, 18, went into debate night hopeful that Biden would prove that he’s not weak or feeble, as Republicans paint him to be. But she walked away feeling more worried about his chances of reelection. Yvette said Biden’s repeated slip-ups were sure to make it harder for Democrats to rally young people to vote for him.

“Honestly, that was a very painful watch. It’s not looking good because we’re trying so hard to get … young voters to realize he’s the lesser of the two evils, but he’s not looking too good,” said Yvette, who will be a freshman at the University of Georgia in the fall.

At one point during the debate, Yvette put her head in her hands and shook her head.

“No more debates, please,” she said. “I don’t think we need another one. I’m good.”

Several attendees, including Yvette, highlighted Biden’s handling of the Israel-Gaza war and immigration as issues on which they disagree with the president. But they said it wasn’t really Biden’s position on those issues — or others — that disappointed them. It was his missteps and demeanor.

Juan Estrada, 32, expressed frustration at what he described as Biden’s poor delivery of his message to the American people. And he noted that many Americans wouldn’t have the energy to fact-check what was said in the debate and would leave debate night leaning toward supporting Trump.

“Let’s be real. Joe Biden was correct; horrible delivery. Donald Trump was a liar; great delivery,” said Estrada, a lawyer.

“There’s no way that if Trump wins we should be surprised,” he added. “You know why? Delivery, delivery, delivery.”

Elvis Hidanovic, 32, heard about the debate watch party from Estrada and figured it would be a good chance for him to tune in to the election. Hidanovic, a Democrat, said he liked what he heard from Trump, “even if at times it feels that Trump doesn’t think before he speaks.”

“I’m leaning toward him now. It feels like something has to change,” said Hidanovic, a police officer. “I want to see what the other side has to offer, too.”

Erica Pope, 38, said she still planned to vote for Biden, in part because of Democrats’ support for abortion rights, while Trump has taken credit for the fall of Roe v. Wade.

“I cannot sit there and pretend like getting rid of my reproductive rights is okay,” said Pope, a social worker. She said she wished there were better options but felt she had no other choice, pointing at Trump’s felony convictions.

“It’s not a discussion. I cannot vote for a criminal, I’m sorry.”

As both groups left their watch parties, few among them appeared to have changed their pre-debate positions. Still, not everyone was satisfied.

Sandy Metts, a 63-year-old teacher and two-time Trump voter, said she would probably vote for Trump again and thought he did a better job in the debate.

But she said she would later watch the separate video stream of independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, who answered the debate questions remotely after he didn’t meet the qualifications to make the stage.

“I want to vote for someone, not against someone,” she said.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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