In the spin room, campaigns compete to mold public perception of the debate

lblackford@herald-leader.comOctober 11, 2012 

DANVILLE — Minutes before the debate ended, Centre College students holding placards marched into the room, creating a forest of red and blue. The names were familiar in political circles, Van Hollen, McConnell, Strickland. The media descended, and in a moment, Spin Alley came to life.

"I think he (Biden) brought it all together and marshalled the facts," said Maryland Congressman Chris Van Hollen, who played U.S. Rep Paul Ryan in Vice President Joe Biden's debate prep.

"We didn't hear any policy proposals about what would be different in the next few years," Ed Gillespie, senior adviser to Romney, said about Biden's performance.

Judging by the media scrum around him, the biggest Spin Alley celebrity was David Axelrod, Obama's senior adviser. He walked into the room a few second before the debate ended, and was quickly surrounded by cameras and microphones.

"I thought it was a pretty decisive debate," Axelrod said. "He (Ryan) ran from almost every question."

Earlier in the day, the spin room, an old basketball court, was used for remote and stand-up interviews. But it soon became the place were political points were scored.

Spin rooms have become commonplace after debates and major speeches. They benefit reporters and campaigns, said Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky. With a 24 hour news cycle, campaigns can get out a fast message and reporters get access to, not the candidate, but their surrogates.

"Spin rooms allow the campaigns to coordinate their message and serve it up as a buffet-style meal for news reporters: All the quotes you can eat," Voss said. "If reporters cannot get access to the spin doctors set up by the party itself, then they might start looking for quotes from outsiders who will not stay on message."

Of course, political spin is as old as politics itself, but the idea of instant messaging through campaigns really hit the general public with the candidacy of Bill Clinton, said Janette Muir, a political science reporter at George Mason University. His campaign "War Room" was later the subject of a documentary, which showed the public how disciplined and immediate political messaging had become.

A Biden surrogate, Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, said it's important for campaigns to have an adequate number of people in a spin room who can speak on behalf of the candidate.

"We were outnumbered in Denver, 22 to five, I think," he said before Thursday's debate. "We won't let that happen again."

Public relations consultant Les Fugate was head of the Centre College Republicans in 2000 for the first vice presidential debate, and was interviewed in the spin room for the college perspective.

"The debate hall is a television production," he said. "This is where all the action takes place. It's where all the politicians are, where all the famous reporters are."

Fugate, who served on Centre's debate committee this year, said it's fascinating to watch the message change during the night. Each campaign has operations rooms near the spin room, and operatives are watching how the surrogates do in their interviews, and how the messages are playing.

"It's a politics lover's dream," Fugate said.

However, whether spin rooms are good for voters is another story, Muir said.

Spin room comments might help an undecided voter make up his or her mind. But, Muir said, the Commission on Presidential Debates has been urging people who watch the debates in small groups, then turn the television off.

"They want people to have a thoughtful discussion about what they saw and what they think," she said.

Linda Blackford: (859) 231-1359. Twitter: @lbblackford

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