T. Cole Newton began hosting presidential debate watch parties at his New Orleans, Louisiana bar in 2012.
“It was a business decision as much as anything else,” Newton told VOA. “I knew my regulars would want to watch as much as I did, so we made an event out of it.”
His bar is Twelve Mile Limit, a cross between a neighborhood dive and a cocktail bar, and he said it routinely fills up during their watch parties.
“Even during the primary debates, we’d be packed like a sports bar during a football game! Lots of beer, snacks, and hootin’ and hollerin’. We get way busier for debates than even big games.”
In 2020, however, watch parties like Newton’s are no longer permitted as local officials continue to impose restrictions on businesses and social gatherings in an attempt to contain the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. In New Orleans, for example, bars have remained closed for months.
This has left residents like Glennis Waterman unsure of where she’ll watch Tuesday evening’s debate, the first between President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden. Waterman said she prefers viewing debates with others because of the sense of community she feels watching with like-minded people.
“I’m not sure what I’m going to do this year,” she said. “If the bars open, I’d go. If not, I hope to join a friend at her house.”
Waterman said a virtual gathering on a platform like Zoom wouldn’t satisfy her desire for companionship, and that she knows watching alone would be frustrating for her.
“I want to be able to share my feelings about the debate with others,” she explained. “I’m sure I’m going to be varying degrees of joyful, amused and angry. I want to share that.”
Debating the value of a debate
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released last week reported that 89% of eligible voters in the United States said they have already made up their mind on whom they will vote for. There seems to be general consensus that there isn’t much new to be learned about these two well-known candidates, particularly during a time of intense political division.
“I can't imagine there's anything new we could possibly learn about either candidate,” said Colin Ash, who added that — while he considers himself politically active — he doesn’t find much value in the debates beyond entertainment. “They are who they are, and most all of us will have decided who we're voting for months ago, if not years ago.”
Aaron Luther said he has enjoyed watching past debates at a neighborhood sports bar but agreed that whatever is said is unlikely to affect how most Americans cast their vote. Still, he believes debates address a problem unique to modern politics.
“So much of our lives and our political discourse now happens online and on our devices,” Luther said, noting that the algorithms on those devices often give users information that reinforces their unique worldview and preferences. “It isn’t seen or shared by others.”
The debates, he hoped, could offer something different.
“They’re one of the few remaining parts of American culture that are best watched live and with others,” he said. “The reactions and follow-ups to the debate will most likely happen in our own little online bubbles, but the debate itself happens live and we can all watch the same thing the same way.”
Luther, a Biden supporter, prefers to watch the debates at a bar so he can enjoy the communal experience. He said he’ll look to see who’s showing the debate in a COVID-safe way, but if he can’t, he has a back-up plan.
“I’ll be happy to watch at home with a negroni [cocktail],” he said. “Or, half-a-dozen negronis, depending on how the debate goes.”
“It’s unfortunate Twelve Mile Limit has to cancel all our events this year,” Newton said, “but it’s absolutely the right thing to do. It’s not worth getting somebody sick over.”
As many debate-watching options disappear, however, New Orleanians are finding new ways to watch that attempt to balance the desire for community with the need for safety.
Laura Beauchamp, who works in the energy industry, said she has watched nearly every presidential debate since she was a student in junior high school. She believes that in a time that is so politically divided, it’s important to hear both sides of issues directly from the candidates. For all the debates she’s watched, though, Beauchamp said this was the first year she wanted to view them with others.
“I’ve always preferred to watch alone,” she said, “but COVID has changed that. I miss people!”
She found a local movie theater that will be showing Tuesday night’s debate. Because movie theaters in New Orleans can’t exceed 25% capacity, Beauchamp felt the experience would be a safe one. She also sees it as an opportunity to support small businesses struggling to stay open during the pandemic and the resultant economic shutdown.
“So many places are closing, so it’s critical we support local businesses during COVID,” she said. “Buying a movie ticket to watch this debate I already want to see is a really easy way to do that.”
While many Americans excitedly prepare to tune in as the candidates for president square off on important domestic and international issues, a lack of other options caused by the coronavirus shutdown could prompt even those who might normally skip the debate to watch.
“If I had something better to do, I’d do it,” said Colin Ash. “But I don’t.”