Reporter's Notebook: Behind-the-scenes look at a post-debate spin room

The spin room is set up for journalists to have ample interaction before the debate.

February 16, 2016 03:53
3 minute read.

CANDIDATE BEN CARSON jokes with reporters in the spin room after the Republican debate in South Carolina on Saturday.. (photo credit: GOL KALEV)

GREENVILLE, SC – Stakes were high in the winner-takes-all state of South Carolina Saturday night.

After a particularly contentious Greenville Republican debate where accusations ran high – ranging from alleged lies to voters to a candidate’s proficiency in Spanish, reporters and candidates flocked to the spin room, where much of the debate’s fate is decided.

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In a matter of seconds, the backstage of the convention turns into the epicenter of the Republican contest. Here, the candidates are presented with a second chance of sorts – they say what they didn’t have a chance to say during the main event, defend themselves from attacks that were leveled at them, and attempt to convince voters and journalists alike that they conquered the night.

The experience offers a freefor- all to engage with the candidates.

For each candidate, a tall red banner follows him and his team, so journalists in the congested room can approach them with questions.

This is a critical hour. Between 11 p.m. and midnight, before journalists file their stories, before the Sunday talk shows begin, before the overnight surveys are executed and verdicts are being delivered, campaigns have 60 minutes to make their case.

John Legittino, a partner at Harbinger Outreach, a marketing firm specializing in high-profile media events, runs the operation.

“The spin room is personification of democracy,” he said.

“A candidate is no longer on stage. The press can come right up to a candidate and interact with him. It also helps even out the process, because not everybody is equally talented on a debate stage. It gives candidates a chance to come down to an environment that is more comfortable.”

The visceral intensity of the spin room and the easy access to candidates are key components of the post-debate gathering, according to Legittino.

“Viewers feel they are here. Delivering the interaction allows us to bring people closer to the election process than ever before,” he said.

The spin room is adjacent to the media filing room where journalists watch the debate, write their stories and exchange thoughts. The facility is set up for journalists to have ample interaction before the debate around the lounge and buffet dinner, and is even equipped with a high-end pop-up coffee shop where one can find a specialty team of barristers that travel from debate to debate.

During commercial breaks, journalists intensely watch the large screens in the room provided by Google, which display an up-to-the-minute analysis of what voters search for in terms of which issues are important and how voters are trending in various states.

Much thought and planning go into a candidate’s spin-room strategy: Do you come in person or do you send surrogates? Do you walk in directly from the debate stage to be the first one or do you go to the green room first to freshen up after two grueling hours on stage? Within minutes after the debate ends, with camera, microphones and iPhones in place, the first red banner is visible through the door; Ohio Governor John Kasich emerges and a sea of reporters congregate around him.

Minutes later, the crowd disperses as another banner announcing retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson comes through the doors, with the rest of the candidates making their arrival in a similar fashion.

Recognizing the importance of such post-debate spin, candidates are in for the long haul as they do TV interviews and answer nearly every question flung their way.

One of the themes of this election has been the disintermediation of politics in America, a salient theme that is evident in the spin room. With the closely watched data feed from Google, it is not just journalists influencing what the public thinks, but it also the public influencing what journalists think.

In doing so, the symbiotic relationship between journalists and the public continues to evolve.

Outside the Greenville Peace Center is a more potent display of democracy, as the candidates’ supporters rally on each of the four street corners, holding banners and cheering for their candidate. On one of the street corners, two groups standing right next to each other engage in a shouting match – each bellowing the names of their preferred candidate.

Suddenly, the shouting match comes to an abrupt end and a louder harmonized singing of the two groups follows: “From the mountains, to the prairies, to the oceans, white with foam, God bless America, my home sweet home.”

At the tune ends with the word “home,” the shouting match continues, and so does the celebration of American democracy.

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