In the post-debate, it is in the spin room that the political confrontation is held. A space as traditional as controversial, which continues to divide opinions
“Tonight at about 9:30, seconds after the Reagan-Mondale debate ends […] a dozen men in good suits and women in silk dresses will circulate smoothly among the reporters, spouting confident opinions.”
“They’ll be the Spin Doctors, senior advisers to the candidates, and they’ll be playing for very high stakes. How well they do their work could be as important as how well the candidates do theirs.”
The words are from Jack Rosenthal. It was October 1984, the debate between Reagan and Mondale had just finished and the journalist from The New York Times witnessed the birth of spin room.
A tradition is born
Spin room, or spin alley, was the name given to the place where, after the debate, the campaign advisors, representatives of political parties and sometimes even the candidates themselves joined together, all with one goal: to spin.
In other words, promote the “deliberate shading of news perception; attempted control of political reaction.”
The Evening News published, on the 13th of October, 1984, a news story about the phenomenon.
“While it looked to most people as if Mondale had performed considerably better than Reagan, the main mission of the “spin patrol” was to spread the view that Mondale had not scored the ‘knock-out punch’ he needed to give new life to his underdog campaign”.
Spin was not born in the presidential elections in 1984, but the spin room became, since this debate, a tradition that accompanies the American political life.
In the history of spin, a name stands out: Lee Atwater.
Reagan’s advisor in the 1984 campaign, Atwater is considered one of the superstars of spin by the way he related to reporters in the frenzy of the post-debate.
Lyn Nofziger, who worked with Atwater in Reagan’s team, recalls the moments that followed the first presidential debate:
“Lee was telling us: ‘now we’re gonna want to go out and spin this’ […] meaning making it look like Reagan had won the debate, which ordinarily would not have been hard to do, but […] that debate was kind of a disaster for Reagan. […] I must tell you, I was very uncomfortable spinning that.”
Even the presidential candidate seemed to be unconvinced on the power of spin.
Edward J. Rollins, director of the campaign, says that Reagan said to him that no spin would convince journalists that his performance in the debate had been good; it was up to himself to do better in the next confrontation with Mondale.
Two weeks later, Reagan shone in the debate with the famous phrase “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
One moment that, Mondale recognized, ended his campaign and contributed to the victory of Reagan in the presidential elections.
The political game
After the initial experience in 1984, the spin room promised to become a tradition in the aftermath of the presidential debates.
In those early years, spin was considered a part of the political game, where journalists were active participants, along with candidates and party representatives.
“Even with the Spin Doctors at work, the printed page and the television screen offer a range of judgments, like the gymnastic judges at the Olympics,” wrote Jack Rosenthal in The New York Times.
In 1996, in the presidential elections that opposed Clinton and Dole, journalists were required to show their credentials to gain access to the spin room for the first time.
Inside, hundreds of reporters sought to capture the best images and reactions.
“Everywhere you looked there were clusters of media people surrounding spinners and surrogates, whose names were printed on laminated red signs held high above the crowd by aides. I felt like I was standing in the middle of one of my own damn cartoons come to life,” wrote Tom Tomorrow, in Salon.
However, some critical voices began to arise.
“Who won? Who lost? Who made the biggest gaffe? […] The news media base their judgment, in part, on the consensus of those semi-professional referees known as spin doctors. […] The spin meisters’ verdicts are just as predictable as their presence,” wrote Deborah Potter in The Christian Science Monitor.
Where elections are won
The electoral cycle has changed, but the unique atmosphere and the mind-blowing pace of the spin room remained.
In 2000, Al Gore and Bush fought for a place in the White House.
“Five minutes before the debate ended, the spinners descended. Ed Rendell, Condi Rice, Karen Hughes, Andrew Cuomo worked the room full of reporters, cruising for interviews, soliciting interest, begging, essentially, for a chance to sell their guy,” reported Jessica Reaves, from Time.
Chuck Raasch, from USA Today, also expressed his displeasure.
“The most absurd exercise in American politics always takes place in the hectic moments after a debate. It’s ‘Spin Alley,’ where talking heads dispense partisan patter in a roomful of hundreds of hectic, on-deadline journalists.”
Amid the criticism, one certainty: the spin room was decisive in the 2000 elections.
“They beat us after the debate in the spin room,” states Tad Devine, from Al Gore’s team for the presidential elections.
“Their spin was, ‘He lied and he sighed,’ and that took hold,” he analysed, in an interview to The New York Times.
In the years that followed, spin room was talked about everywhere.
“The spin room - oily engine of the political meat grinder,” described Jerry Lanson, in an article in The Christian Science Monitor, in 2003.
Adam Nagourney, the main political correspondent for The New York Times, went further by boycotting the spin room.
Nagourney defended his decision, saying the spin room was “degradating,” “a waste of time” and “essentially the disingenuous exercise.”
In 2004, the comedian Jon Stewart made one of the most famous criticism of the spin room: “You're literally walking to a place called deception lane.”
The frenetic atmosphere of the spin room was also lampooned on the Late Night with Conan O’Brien.
The character Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog, accompanied the post-debate and inquired strategists and political representatives.
A cultural phenomenon
Despite the attacks from several fronts, the spin room continues to gather hundreds of journalists and advisors and to be an electoral tradition that the American public does not give up on. Why?
“This is a whole cultural phenomenon,” states Mark McKinnon, who was part of Bush’s campaign in 2004. “People understand that how this gets framed and filtered through the press is often as important as the debate itself.”
The function of the spinner is not to distort or misrepresent the result of a debate, but to help the public to understand the issues involved and the point of views – especially of his candidate, of course! – so you can make an informed and conscious choice.
Since both candidates are represented in the spin room, the public has the opportunity to know the point of views in the debate, a confrontation in which democracy is always the winner.
The immediacy and diversity of reactions are some of the contributions brought by the spin room for political communication, features that enrich the media arena.
Isabel Hardman of The Spectator points out another utility of this practice: analyse the parties’ political strategy.
“In the spin room we see quite clearly how the parties plan to attack one another and how they want to talk about themselves."
“Because we know that everything is scripted, we are not listening to the ministers and spinners in order to be persuaded, but to see what it is their party will likely spend the next few days at least saying,” she stated.
The spin room is not a mere extension of the debate; it is, itself, an important political communication tool.
By analysing the position of the candidates, summarizing and reiterating his key messages, the spinners contribute to bring political citizens closer and transmit more clearly the electoral proposals, contributing to public information.
The spin room’s dynamic and amazing atmosphere also helps to humanise the clashes played in the political arena.
It was precisely in this space that Rick Perry brought up, in 2011, a gaffe committed in full debate moments before.
The candidate reacted with humour to the fact that he had forgotten the name of one of the three governmental agencies that he planned to extinguish.
In the 2016 presidential race, the Democrat Bernie Sanders surprised by being represented in the spin room by Killer Mike.
“How does a rapper end up supporting Senator Sanders?” asked a journalist.
“Smokin’ a joint, reading his tweets,” was the answer.
The presence of a world music celebrity in the post-debate illustrates the spin room and its stakeholders’ ability to innovate.
An innovation made even more evident by the fact that the other candidates have been represented by more typical spokesmen for the spin room, namely Communication professionals and political figures.
But the political Communication and hip hop did not always face each other.
In 1992, Vice President Dan Quayle said that the rapper Tupac’s album was a disgrace to American music.
“There is absolutely no reason for a record like this to be published,” he mentioned.
16 years later, the tone has changed.
Barack Obama’s campaign for the presidential elections had the support of several artists of this genre, such as Will.i.am and Jay Z.
A relationship between politics and hip hop taken to the extreme by Kanye West, who announced his intention to run for the White House in 2020.
Political Communication learned to adjust itself to the new times, making the public debate more diversified.
In the online age
As Killer Mike, many voters intersect with the candidates’ political messages not through the traditional media, but through Social Media.
Parties and candidates find themselves forced to find new ways to reach the public, focusing on information, proximity and speed.
Social media came to politics with Barack Obama’s media campaign for the 2008 presidential elections.
The online platforms, especially Twitter, are assumed as a circulation space and of opposing ideas, becoming an alternative to the traditional spin room.
Its greatest asset? Real time.
But is the spin room becoming obsolete?
“For many years, the post-debate ‘spin room’ was the place where campaigns could try to influence debate coverage. Now, there’s no delay – campaigns take their candidates’ key quotes and, just moments after they happen, push them out online in an attempt to generate momentum and that needed attention,” writes Scott Detrow for NPR.
In 2004, only four years before Obama’s digital revolution, political communication was very different.
After the Bush-Kerry debates, sheets of paper were delivered to the journalists with the campaign’s key messages.
A now completely outdated strategy, believes Brian Jones, spokesman for Mick Romney in 2012.
“I think with Twitter, and the way information now moves, the sense of how the debate is being played out occurs in almost real-time,” states Jones, in an interview to The Huffington Post. “In years past, you may have had to wait until the debate concluded.”
Despite the technological evolution, the spin room did not become obsolete; quite the contrary.
This practice is now extended to other platforms, contributing to bring more people from the public into the political arena and increase the debate’s diversity.
Nowadays, we can speak of a digital spin.
In its traditional or online version, the spin room continues to be considered as important as or more important than the debate itself to inform the public and promote the confrontation of political opinions.
By giving projection to different voices associated with several campaigns, this practice helps voters to make an informed decision, becoming, ultimately, a democracy instrument.