First of all, reporters don’t watch debates from the hall. There are some in the “pool” – the group that watches from inside the hall in case a fight breaks out or someone faints, but the vast majority of reporters watch debates from an adjoining facility – often a large tent – on television sets scattered throughout.
Because the debate being watched in person by the people in the hall is a completely different program than that which is being watched by (like on Thursday night) by 24 million people on their TVs.
The debate, on October 8, 1988, between Senators Dan Quayle and Lloyd Bentsen is what caused that. That was the night that Bentsen uncorked the famous line:
“I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
It was a great line that produced a great deal of hooting and cheering from the Democrats in the hall, but the reporters in the hall – and there were a lot of them – thought that Quayle had acquitted himself well, had known his stuff, and hadn’t collapsed with a case of the vapors.
It was not until the snap polling started coming in showing that the people who had watched the debate at home thought Bentsen had cleaned Quayle’s clock.
I know all that because, like the Political Zelig I am, I was there.
And the reason I knew that the press in the hall had done well was because I was working the press section. This was before official “Spin Rooms” and official “Spinners” were part of the official “Process.”
Prior to the debate, it is useful to work the press area as well. You tell the press that your candidate’s opponent is well-known as the best debater since Daniel Webster and how your candidate just remaining upright in the face of that silver-tongued devil should be seen as an act of political courage.
The idea, of course, is to set the bar very high for your opponent and very low for your candidate.
Most front-runners hate debates. They are the antithesis of the famed, if not wholly accurate, clause in the Hippocratic Oath, “Primum non nocere” First, do no harm. The Hypocritical Political version of that (if you’re in first place) is “First, take no risks.”
That’s why campaigns spend so much time, energy and money on paid ads. They can control the timing, the placement, the content, and the costs. Low risk, high reward.
Debates are the opposite: High risk, low reward.
If you’re in first place and do very well, the best you can do is still be in first place. The worst you can do is not be in first place after the debate.
We don’t yet know the poll-driven results of the debate last Thursday night. The only poll I have seen (at the time I am writing this) was an on-line poll paid for by NBC which ran, according to the NBC website “for 24 hours from Friday evening into Saturday.”
First, polls taken over a weekend are notoriously suspect. Second, on-line polls are notoriously suspect. This this on-line, weekend poll was conducted by the firm named SurveyMonkey.com.
I know SurveyMonkey runs on-line polls every day and has millions of people participating, but a poll that has Donald Trump and Ted Cruz running 1-2 is … suspect.
Getting back to the post-debate spinning, my advice to campaign staffs has never wavered:
No matter what happened during the debate you declare your candidate the winner. You say it with excitement, with fervor, and with no hesitation.
You say, “We won! Yea.”
If your candidate threw up on his shoes, you claim it a victory because he is now the spokesman for every American with digestive tract issues.
Now, that’s spinning.
Mr. Galen is a veteran political strategist and communications consultant. He blogs at www.Mullings.com.