Hawaii Democrats and Republicans gathered Monday around the state to watch the first Donald Trump-Hillary Clinton presidential debate, but it’s unclear whether anyone heard anything new that would move a vote from one candidate to the other.
A dozen committed Trump supporters gathered at the Hawaii Innovation Center in downtown Hilo to watch the debate on a 6-foot screen in a classroom that holds more than 50 people.
A red-and-white banner on a wood frame was propped under the screen offering Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan, with miniature American flags attached to each end. Bright red “Big Islanders for Trump” shirts were stacked on the table at the back of the room.
Glitches from the online feed from Fox News sometimes caused the images of the candidates to freeze or repeat.
The room warmed up as Trump pointed out that Clinton previously supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership — which she now opposes — and when he accused Clinton of having “no plan.”
The first chuckle from watchers came when Trump told Clinton she had been thinking about the nation’s economic problems “for 30 years” as manufacturing jobs fled the country. The first collective laugh was prompted by Trump’s growl that “we have no leadership, and honestly, that starts with Secretary Clinton.”
The applause began when Trump demanded that Clinton release her 33,000 missing emails.
When Clinton began to riff on Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns, Puna resident Tim Heusel announced from the back of the room that “we don’t care.”
Heusel, a private security officer who wore a “Hillary for Prison 2016” T-shirt, said the whole issue of tax returns “was brought up just to try to make it look like he’s a rich guy, and is not going to help the little guy,” adding, “I mean, you don’t see anything about how rich Hillary is.”
After the debate, Heusel said, “If you watched Donald Trump out there, he was being very presidential. He didn’t get into the name-calling. He avoided all of the zingers he could have thrown out there.”
Lowana Richardson of Honomu said her conclusion from the debate was that Clinton “wasn’t a fighter.”
“I just felt that if there’s going to be anyone in charge of us, you got to have someone strong,” said Richardson. “She came across weaker in her mannerism. … I didn’t feel like she fought back strongly like Trump. He always came back strong.
“I’m a woman, you’ve got to be strong. I mean, men are naturally kind of stronger, she has to be able to come back strong and hard. I didn’t feel that from her,” she said.
David Yonan, the East Hawaii chairman for the Republican Party, said he organized the gathering to spur discussion following “one of the most historic debates that we’ve had for president of the United States.” He said he has been a Trump supporter “from the beginning.”
Yonan is a retired Los Angeles County firefighter who spent eight days in New York as a volunteer sifting through Ground Zero debris after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center. Trump went to the site to shake the hands of rescue workers, Yonan said.
“He didn’t want any news media, he didn’t want to make it a media thing, he just came down to thank the first responders and the construction workers,” Yonan said. “That to me showed great character in someone. Even though he’s a billionaire, he’s like a working man’s billionaire, apparently.”
Hawaii has long been a stronghold for the Democratic Party. President Barack Obama clobbered Republican Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election, securing 71 percent of Hawaii voters to Romney’s 28 percent.
While Hawaii Democrats chose Bernie Sanders overwhelmingly over Clinton in the state’s March presidential preference poll, Clinton has maintained solid support over Trump in the general election campaign.
Clinton was beating Trump 49 percent to 25 percent among likely Hawaii voters in a July Honolulu Star-Advertiser poll. About 10 percent of voters said they didn’t know whom they were going to vote for, or refused to answer, while 6 percent said they didn’t intend to vote for president. About 6 percent of the vote went to Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson and 5 percent to Jill Stein of the Green Party.
In national polls, Clinton’s lead over Trump has narrowed in recent weeks. On the eve of Monday’s debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. — the first of three planned debates — national polls had the two in a virtual dead heat, upping the stakes and pressure as the two candidates took to the stage on Monday.
The debate, moderated by Lester Holt of NBC, ran for 90 minutes without commercial interruption and hit on major themes, including the economy, Middle East foreign policy, cybersecurity, racial tensions between police and black communities, and nuclear arms proliferation.
About 40 Clinton supporters, including former U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, were at the Hillary for Hawaii headquarters at Ward Warehouse in Kakaako to watch the debate, which aired at 3 p.m. Hawaii time. The mood was jovial as Clinton supporters alternately applauded Clinton and laughed at Trump, seeming particularly bemused by his repeated references to his business investments.
Some said afterward that Trump, a political novice, casino executive and reality-television personality, seemed out of his element against the political gravitas of Clinton.
Michele Matsuo, who had supported Sanders but is now a Clinton backer, said that the debate was like a “blood sport” and that one of Clinton’s biggest challenges was to not “be bullied” by Trump.
Matsuo said Clinton succeeded.
“She laughed, which was the best. She didn’t let anything slide and she laughed and got everyone to chuckle at what he was trying to pull off,” she said. “And it was very deflating for him. I think it was an incredible strategy, if it was a strategy. But it just came across as so natural.”
The Clinton supporters grew particularly rowdy as Trump struggled to explain his lead role in the Obama “birther” conspiracy. Moderator Holt asked Trump to explain his yearslong campaign questioning Obama’s citizenship and whether the president was truly born in Honolulu.
Trump said, “I was the one that got him to produce the birth certificate, and I think I did a good job,” he said, to jeers from the Honolulu viewers.
Hawaii’s Department of Health released Obama’s birth certificate in 2011 to try to put to rest the conspiracies about Obama being born in another country, which Clinton called a “racist lie.”
After the debate, Dylan Beesley, Hawaii director for Hillary for America, said Trump had continued to peddle the theory for several years after the Health Department confirmed the document released by Obama. In December 2013, following the death of state Health Director Loretta Fuddy in a plane crash off Molokai, Trump tweeted: “How amazing, the state health director who verified copies of Obama’s ‘birth certificate’ died in a plane crash today. All others lived.”
“It’s just ludicrous,” said Beesley.
Hanabusa, who is running to reclaim her seat in the U.S. House of Representatives left vacant by the death of U.S. Rep. Mark Takai, said after the debate that Clinton really excelled when she delivered her one-liner attacking Trump’s economic strategy.
“Where Hillary scored was in the first … five minutes, when she came up with ‘Trumped-up trickle down economics,’” she said. “I think that is going to be the phrase of this whole debate, because that one phrase explains how Trump is really going to fund anything. He’s putting trickle-down economics on steroids practically.”
While Trump’s performance appeared to increase the anger that many Clinton supporters feel toward him, it’s not clear whether Clinton succeeded in making voters see her as more trustworthy and “likable,” as some political analysts have argued is one of her biggest challenges.
Clinton supporter and Waikiki resident Kenny Wilder said that he didn’t think she “endeared anyone,” but struggled to say exactly why.
“It’s not something concrete. It’s more abstract,” he said. “I don’t think anyone that was in the middle of the road walked away like, ‘Wow, I really love that woman,’ or ‘She really inspired me.’”
But Shar Paclib said that none of that bothered her. “I just feel that she is smart and she makes sense,” she said.