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For 2012 Presidential Debates, Campaigns Speed Up The Spin

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Obama adviser David Plouffe in spin room after 2008 VP debate  on October 2, 2008 in St. Louis, Missouri. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Obama adviser David Plouffe in spin room after 2008 VP debate on October 2, 2008 in St. Louis, Missouri. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

NEW YORK -- When President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney leave the debate stage at 10:30 p.m. Wednesday, many of the 3,000 journalists churning out stories in the University of Denver's Hamilton Gymnasium will head to the spin room, the traditional post-debate gathering place of campaign operatives and surrogates waiting to argue that their candidate won.

It's just no longer clear why.

The spin room has long served as a good justification for expensing flights to debate sites, where reporters actually watch the candidates spar on large screens outside the debate hall, surrounded by thousands of their peers. Getting post-debate reaction from advisers and strategists was one reason to physically be there.

But as the 2012 election plays out on Twitter, reporters, pundits, campaign staffers and party officials will already have hashed out every key moment of the 90-minute debate before heading to the spin room. Not to mention the fact that top advisers and high-profile surrogates -- including Vice President Joe Biden -- will be ubiquitous on cable news and a growing number of livestream broadcasts immediately after, thus making the spin room more ritual than necessity.

"I'm not sure why you eat apple pie on Thanksgiving, but you do," said Steve Schmidt, John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign manager and an MSNBC analyst. "I'm not sure why you go into the spin room after the debates, except because you do."

In election cycles past, the spin room arguably served more of a purpose. Tad Devine, a strategist for Al Gore during the 2000 campaign, recalled Monday how George W. Bush's team helped fuel the post-debate narrative of a condescending Vice President by emphasizing Gore's infamous sighs. “They beat us after the debate in the spin room,” Devine told The New York Times. “Their spin was, 'He lied and he sighed,' and that took hold."

Schmidt told The Huffington Post that campaigns used to enter the spin room to "try and make an argument," but these days, they can only "to try and cement an impression."

For Wednesday's debate, Schmidt suggested campaigns don't "over-communicate" by flooding reporters' inboxes with spin. "When you communicate points through hundreds of emails, you communicate nothing," Schmidt said. "You're better off responding to a few big things than a hundred little things."

That said, reporters may feel a bit of information overload from the constant chatter on Twitter and in sifting through dozens of emails and video clips sent by Obama and Romney's rapid response teams and their respective political parties.

The Republican National Committee's research department will work hand in hand with the Romney campaign, according to RNC spokesman Tim Miller. The RNC, he noted, has the largest searchable library of Obama videos to quickly compare claims made on stage with past statements. The committee will also utilize various social media platforms -- YouTube, Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook -- to promote Romney's highlights and push back against Obama. (The Obama campaign and the DNC will similarly work together, but neither provided comment on their rapid response operation.)

While the campaigns will still send surrogates into the spin room, they recognize the increased velocity of the news cycle requires them to change the way they operate. Just two cycles ago, Romney spokesman Brian Jones recalled handing out pieces of paper to reporters with the campaign's message following the Bush-Kerry debates -- a spin strategy that clearly wouldn't work in today's digital world.

"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," Jones told The Huffington Post. "In years past, you may have had to wait until the debate concluded."

Spin existed long before there was a room designated for it. Walter Mears, who covered four decades of campaigns for the Associated Press, told The Huffington Post that post-debate spinning evolved as "candidates and allies just started showing up in the press room to claim they'd won." That spinning, Mears said, "was a distraction and a pain if you were trying to write your debate story while they all made their claims."

But the presidential debate spin room as we know it appears to have been born on Oct. 7, 1984, according to contemporaneous newspaper reports. That night, the AP reported, aides to Ronald Reagan went on a "spin patrol" and sought out "reporters to put the White House 'spin' on the event." The AP described the first, impromptu spin room in the Hyatt banquet room thusly:

It was a remarkable scene. Not only because many of these officials are difficult to reach on other occasions, but also because when they are reached, most insist on speaking on background, which means their words can be quoted but their names may not be used.

On Sunday night, everyone was on the record.

In one corner, a crowd was gathered around Edward J. Rollins, director of Reagan-Bush '84, who said he didn't believe Reagan's standing would drop in the polls as a result of the debate.

Off to the side was Richard G. Darman, an influential assistant to the president, who repeated many times throughout the night that even if Mondale won the debate -- which he did not acknowledge -- it was ultimately irrelevant because he did not say anything that would attract Reagan supporters to his side.

Lee Atwater, the political director of the Reagan campaign, was handing out results of an early telephone poll conducted by the campaign showing -- not surprisingly -- that Reagan had won.

Speechwriter Ken Khachigian said the event showed that when you get Reagan away from the cards he normally uses, "the guy is sitting there with full command of the facts."

Twenty-eight years later, Rollins says that "spin rooms after debates are useless."

"I think debates are still important," Rollins told The Huffington Post. "But the instant communication has so altered the game, that it's made some of these old rituals not very relevant."

Rollins said there are "15,000 ways" of getting post-debate reaction without going into a spin room -- not to mention that reporters likely have have their pieces pretty much completed by the time the debate ends and just use the spin room for a few reaction quotes.

While Rollins and his colleagues spun for Reagan after the first 1984 debate, the president himself thought it was futile to try and dramatically change the inevitable post-debate narrative. Rollins recalled Reagan telling him that no amount of spin would convince reporters he had performed well against Mondale and so he'd have to turn things around himself in the next debate. (Two weeks later, Reagan uttered one of his famous debate zingers, that he wouldn't "exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience" -- a line that Mondale later conceded had effectively ended his campaign.)

"He knew it," Rollins said of Reagan's view after the first debate. "The whole idea of going out to spin it was kind of absurd anyway. "

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