It’s a scene that has become a staple in every United States presidential election cycle. Just moments after one of the presidential debates wraps up, surrogates from each campaign rush to the nearest television camera and open microphone to tell the American people why their candidate won the debate. Their sole mission is to frame the debate in the most flattering light for their candidate.
Dan Pfeiffer is a former post-debate spinner who recently wrote an article on social media and the presidential election for cnn.com. He believes the importance of the post-debate spin room could not be overstated.
“In the old days, campaigns flooded the designated spin room the second the debate ended with staff and high-level surrogates to explain why their candidate won (even if they didn’t). As a onetime spinner, I can tell you we literally ran into the room to beat the other candidates’ spinners to the awaiting media hordes. This was the first chance to try to affect the judgment of the political intelligentsia.”
The Impact of Presidential Debates Through the Years
It’s not hard to see why, up until this election cycle, many political insiders would feel the same way. Perhaps no other single happening in the course of a presidential election cycle has as much influence over the eventual outcome as the debates. In 1960, John F. Kennedy rode a superior televised debate performance to victory over Richard Nixon. Twenty years later, Ronald Reagan used an affable approach to deflect criticism by President Carter with a shrug, smile, and “there you go again.” When the post-debate consensus was that Reagan came off as more likable, the election was all but over.
Perhaps the most instructive example of the importance of post-debate spin came another twenty years after that when Bush and Gore faced off for the first of their three debates. This was a case where what happened after the debate actually changed the public perception of who won. Today that debate is remembered as a disastrous performance by then Vice-President Gore whose constant sighing, sneering, and eye-rolling made Governor Bush the clear winner that night.
Right after the debate, public perception was markedly different.
Vice-President Gore was stronger on policy and substance and this resonated throughout the entire course of the debate. According to Gallup’s overnight poll, Gore was deemed to have won the debate by a margin of 48% to 41% while other polls had him winning by an even wider margin.
So why is this remembered as being such a colossal failure on his part? It’s what happened with the post-debate spin in the hours and days that followed.
Carter Eskew is a long-time Gore advisor and, looking back, it seems fairly clear what went wrong.
“I have a feeling that where we lost the debate was afterwards. The Bush people sensed vulnerability and legitimately took advantage of some of Gore’s performance flaws. And why not? You can win on policy, but not win overall if you wound yourself,” he said.
Clearly the lesson is what actually happens in the debate is not as important as what is perceived to have happened in the debate.
The Times They Are a Changing
But now that we are in 2016 and well into the “social media era” of presidential elections, it appears that the importance to post-debate spin is being severely undercut by the real-time perception shaping via Twitter.
Indeed, if you look at the September 26th Trump/Clinton debate, there is evidence to suggest that the public perceptions and opinions were being molded while the debate was happening. By the time it was over, there was little to be done by surrogates in the spin rooms.
One of the top three tweeted about exchanges of the evening was Secretary Clinton’s assertion that Donald Trump believes climate change is a hoax invented by the Chinese. Trump immediately and vociferously denied he ever said anything of the like. In the ‘old days’, it would have been up to each candidate’s surrogates to either play up or brush off the moment after the fact. Instead the following tweet popped up on almost everyone’s twitter feed seemingly instantaneously.
While the debate was still going on, people were having fun with the fact that Trump was so obviously caught in a lie in his denial. This is a new reality that Pfeiffer admits is far different from the way things used to be.
“Now, it’s basically all over but the shouting before the first person sprints into the spin room. You need your surrogates tweeting during the debate, not spinning afterward. Reporters are now analyzing and critiquing the debate as it happens, so campaigns need to be responding, spinning and sharing on Twitter in real time; it is the only way to shape the perception,” he said.
What makes this highly impactful is the sheer volume of tweets occurring during the 90-minute debate. According to a BBC news report, “On Twitter the debate racked up numbers more commonly seen during international sporting events or shocking breaking news. Nearly five million tweets were sent out using hashtags #DebateNight and #Debates2016.”
Another important aspect of the immediacy of Twitter is the role satiric memes play now. One need only ask Sarah Palin how much satire can affect your political trajectory. Many Americans believe Palin said “I can see Russia from my house,” in her Vice-Presiential debate. That was actually a line delivered by Tina Fey playing Palin on Saturday Night Live.
While the debate was still raging on, people were using twitter (and to a lesser degree Facebook) to publish their comic takes on what was unfolding before us. The following two memes are classic examples of how the perceptions that Trump’s constant sniffing and unorthodox rants were being perceived by the general public.
Just as with Bush/Gore in 2000, people were reacting to the mannerisms and reactions of the candidates rather that to specific policy positions. The key difference in this case is that these reactions are forming and hardening well before the surrogates even step foot in the post-debate spin room.
The Future of the Spin Room
It is unlikely they will shut down the spin room anytime soon. News networks will always need soundbites and post-debate reaction. But in terms of shaping and framing presidential debate public opinion, it appears the spin room has gone the way of the fax machine, VCR, and rotary phone. Twitter is the new opinion crafting king of the jungle.