SIMI VALLEY, Calif. -- Journalists traveling thousands of miles to cover Wednesday night’s Republican debate have the same view of the action as anyone watching CNN in their living room. On second thought, it's worse.
The nation's leading political journalists aren't physically in the room when candidates trade jabs on stage at the Reagan Library, on an impressive set with the 40th president's Air Force One providing the backdrop. The 500 attendees who get those coveted seats include candidates' family members, party leaders, and some members of the public.
Instead, several hundred journalists work inside a large tent nearby on the presidential library grounds, tapping elbow to elbow on laptops and watching CNN on televisions scattered throughout the room. The CNN feed cut out once, but the WiFi's working (so far!). And it's air conditioned. There are also plenty of snacks -- Doritos, granola bars, chocolate chip cookies. Still, there are more comfortable ways to watch nearly five hours of debate, spread across the undercard and main event.
Yet 800 journalists -- roughly 53 per candidate -- received credentials to cover the debate from the big tent.
Political debates, like conventions, remain a tribal custom of the press corps, even though they could be easily watched on TV. The social element is clearly a big draw, but journalists insist that's not the only justification for making the trek. Some advantages of attending, they say, include the opportunity to witness the spectacle of the political-media apparatus and to get the opportunity to speak with candidates, top campaign staffers, and even family members.
“I just had a very nice conversation with Mrs. Jindal that enriches my experience of covering people like this,” MSNBC host Chris Matthews, who is leading the network's post-debate coverage, told HuffPost in the spin room after speaking with Bobby Jindal and his wife. “I actually like to meet people. And I met him, he’s very winning in person. ... You can find out why they got elected. You don’t always see that on the tube. You don’t catch it.”
Matthews, who wrote Wednesday on the reality show aspects of the Donald Trump’s candidacy, acknowledged that the debates are primarily television events, but said “you always want to be there because something could happen.”
“Mostly, you never know who you’re going to grab,” Matthews added, not long before he jumped up to greet former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott passing through the spin room.
Nick Corasaniti, digital campaign correspondent for The New York Times, cited the charged atmosphere of a debate site as a reason to attend.
“You wouldn’t just cover an NFL game from your TV. You’d go to the game and get the experience and get the atmosphere,” Corasaniti told HuffPost. “Not that sports and politics are the same, but I think coming here and getting all the flavor, being in the spin room, whether you use those quotes or not, kind of puts everything in perspective.”
That post-debate spin room is another reason to come. The custom seemed all but dead by 2012, as social media-savvy campaigns made their cases to the press in real-time on Twitter. Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior Obama White House adviser and current CNN political commentator, noted in an interview that the spin room is “sort of an anachronism of the pre-Twitter age."
Pfeiffer recalled how he and other 2008 Obama campaign staffers left a debate early to race to spin room in an attempt to influence the media narrative. If Obama had a particularly bad night that cycle, the campaign’s strategy would be to have the candidate on the morning shows the following day, he said.
“Now that’s an equivalent of a week,” Pfeiffer told HuffPost, in reference to the increasingly sped-up news cycle. Pfeiffer suggested it's wise for candidates themselves to make their case immediately to the press after debating, rather than waiting to sit down for an interview the next day.
Following last month's Fox News debate, several Republican candidates, including Trump, headed to the spin room, breathing new life into the tradition. Candidates have also been stopping by other areas on the debate site filled with journalists, making news even before the debate kicks off.
On Wednesday afternoon, Ben Carson swung by the media filing center and was immediately mobbed by dozens of reporters and photographers. Though the press got the opportunity to ask some questions, the surging Republican candidate also took a shot at the Fourth Estate when asked about his media strategy.
“My new approach is to assume that people have an agenda and to be very careful with their questions,” Carson said.
Read the latest updates on the GOP debate here.
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