MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Democrats squared off for their third presidential debate last night in Houston. So far in the 2020 primary contest, polling has indicated not just which candidates voters prefer, it also shows high levels of interest and engagement on the part of Democratic voters, which is exactly what NPR's Don Gonyea found at a watch party in Milwaukee in the very important electoral state of Wisconsin.
DON GONYEA, BYLINE: As watch parties go, the setting was unusual. It was at a place called Bounce Milwaukee that has inflatable playscapes, rock climbing, ax throwing and a bar with lots of pinball machines.
(SOUNDBITE OF PINBALL MACHINES)
GONYEA: Owner Ryan Clancy did some modifications to one old Spider-Man machine. There's a plastic figurine under the glass right in the middle.
RYAN CLANCY: We took out the normal villain, who's Sandman, and we put in Donald Trump. We changed a lot of the audio samples, as well.
GONYEA: So as the ball ricochets around, Trump's voice reacts.
(SOUNDBITE OF PINBALL MACHINE)
COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: (Imitating Donald Trump) Bing, bing. Bang, bang. Robbie, you are fake news.
GONYEA: The pinball machines went silent when the debate came on.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: That we must and will defeat Trump.
GONYEA: The booths in the upstairs bar filled quickly. More than 60 people showed up. Thirty-year-old Lorenzo Santos (ph) was there. He works as a sales manager. He says he feels compelled to be involved and informed.
LORENZO SANTOS: I think it's exciting. It's definitely refreshing, and it's encouraging. I really do believe that these are uncommon times.
GONYEA: But he also says the need to do something is rooted in worries about a repeat of last time in Wisconsin and nationally.
SANTOS: After 2016, who knows anything about politics?
GONYEA: This was a mostly younger crowd, voters in their 20s and 30s. Some, new to politics. Many, longtime Democratic activists, like Solana Patterson Ramos (ph). She was a Bernie Sanders supporter four years ago. This time, she's undecided. So far, she's pleased to have more progressives to choose from this year, and she likes that issues like race, gun violence and "Medicare for All" are being aired out on the debate stage.
SOLANA PATTERSON RAMOS: So they're talking about helping with the college debt. They're talking about helping with college tuition, with poverty, in general. And then that's kind of where I'm going forward.
GONYEA: She says that even if a moderate Democrat gets the nomination, her hope is that maybe they'll be just a bit more progressive than they would have been otherwise. Stacy Clark (ph) also describes himself as a progressive. He says his favorite candidate is Kamala Harris. But, he says, he likes and trusts Joe Biden and that he's leaning toward Biden right now. It's about how to best beat Donald Trump, he says.
STACY CLARK: Let's try to bring it back slowly. The progressive ideas, of course, I agree with them. But how are we going to effectively make sure that America works for everyone?
GONYEA: So there were strong disagreements on the debate stage and at this watch party. But here's something else that feels different this year. These Democratic voters are pretty quick to say they expect to support the eventual nominee, even at this early date when the debate stage is still crowded. Here's how Elizabeth Warren supporter Danny Hoeft (ph) put it. He's 22 and works at a Milwaukee law firm.
DANNY HOEFT: When you talk with other people tonight, no one's going to be bashing candidates very hard because we realize that no matter who the candidate is, they're supporting middle-class Americans, and they're undoing what Trump has done in the past three years right now.
GONYEA: But history also shows that finding party unity isn't always so easy. Elections in '08 and 2016 are only the most recent examples so that prediction may still be tested. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Milwaukee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.