“It far exceeded my worst expectations.”

“A circus.”

“I had to pry my eyes open and force my face to the screen just to absorb anything.”

Those were just some of the reactions to the first presidential debate from voters on The Inquirer’s Election 2020 Roundtable. The debate Tuesday offered President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden an opportunity to articulate a vision for the country’s future. It was an opportunity badly missed, voters said — one that left many of them disgusted and dismayed.

The Roundtable brings together a representative group of 24 voters from across Pennsylvania, a critical swing state, for a series of open virtual conversations about politics, policy, and the presidential election.The latest Roundtable conversations were held Wednesday and Thursday, before the news Friday that Trump had contracted the coronavirus. Learn more about the Election 2020 Roundtable here.

Republicans, Democrats, and independents all expressed deep disappointment. They said both candidates failed to debate in a cordial manner, resorting to finger-pointing and interrupting. But many, including some Republicans, found more fault with Trump, who repeatedly interrupted Biden.

“I don’t put Donald Trump and Joe Biden on an equal playing field here,” said Ezelle Sanford III, 30, a Philadelphia Democrat. “This debate was entirely exhausting. I wish there was a commercial break.”

Adele Barone, a Libertarian in Wyoming County, said even her 13-year-old daughter, who is beginning to take an interest in politics, was upset by the debate.

“Her school has a better debate team than what happened on the stage," Barone said.

Referring to when Trump brought up Hunter Biden’s struggles with drug addiction, Barone added of her daughter: “She thought it was downright trashy and upsetting.”

Many voters were troubled by Trump’s refusal on stage to condemn white supremacist groups.

“I thought that was a very disturbing moment,” said Kaitlin Ahern, 20, a Democrat from Scranton. “Out of many disturbing moments that we saw throughout the night, to me that was the one that stuck out the most.”

Soneyet Muhammad, a Philadelphia Democrat, said of that moment: “I’m not surprised but still leave room for shock” that people can support Trump.

“This debate was an illustration of the dire state of our democracy,” said Muhammad, 39. “As bad as it was, I hope that unmasking will inspire folks to opt not to support him.”

“It was a full display of stupidity," Muhammad said. "I was embarrassed.”

Numerous voters in both parties said they wished moderator Chris Wallace had had a mute button at his disposal.

Lauren Jessop, 62, a Republican from Easton, said that while she didn’t like how often Trump spoke over Biden, she also took issue with the former vice president dodging a question about whether he would support adding more justices to the Supreme Court.

“[Biden] didn’t answer the question about not packing the court or dealing with the filibuster,” she said.

“And he would not denounce antifa," she said, referring to the loose network of far-left activists. "He totally skirted that question.”

Several times during the debate, Biden looked into the camera and spoke directly to voters. While some Democrats saw those as being among his strongest moments, they didn’t sit well with David Graham, a Republican from Johnstown.

“Oh God, I hated that so much,” said Graham, 66. “It was a debate. It was not a political ad. … It just really upset me.”

“The president interrupted more than Biden did, but Biden gave as good as he got,” Graham added. “I was and will be voting for Trump. But he made a complete fool of himself at his debate. Biden didn’t do much better. … If we’re gonna run by WWE rules then maybe we should get The Rock to moderate these things.”

President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden during their first debate Tuesday in Cleveland.
Olivier Douliery / AP
President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden during their first debate Tuesday in Cleveland.

Jonathan Taylor, a 62-year-old Republican in Gettysburg, described the debate like this: “Trump will fight for you. Biden will give you a hug.”

Lena Surzhko-Harned, a 37-year-old Democrat in Erie, disagreed. “Trump fights for himself, that’s what you saw," she said. "He’s not fighting for me.”

In spite of it all, about three-quarters of Roundtable members said they would still watch the next debate.

“I’m definitely going to watch the next two,” said Scott Young, 51, a Republican in Bucks County. “I don’t know how many cocktails it’ll take to get through them.”

Jeremy Jacobs, a 37-year-old Democrat from Bloomsburg in Columbia County, asked simply: “Was this debate a logical end point to where we’ve progressed as a country and a society?"