A Spinmeister's Guide to Watching the Debates

Assuming it goes off as planned, Friday night's Presidential debate will be worth watching as much for the political theatre as for the actual policies and strategies outlined by the two Commander-in-Chief wannabes.

The Presidential debates have become the Academy Awards of spinning. The campaigns try to spin expectations before the debate, and as soon as the red light goes off at the end of the debate, legions of spinners descend on a spin room full of media to try to spin the stories that will come out about who "won and who "lost."

Who will be seen as the winner of the debate? "Whoever has the most attractive people in the spin room," says a cynical Harry Clark, a longtime Republican lobbyist.

Seriously, what should students of spin watch for?
Chris Lehane, a veteran Democratic operative and former press secretary to Al Gore, says there are two main things to watch for:

  1. "A moment" -- a goof or something that people can point to as an insight into character (Bush I's glance at his watch in the midst of his town hall debate with Clinton in 1992, Gore's sighs during the first debate with Bush II in 2000, for example)
  2. How the candidates come off in terms of their characters and whether the voter sitting in their living room feels they can trust him. "For viewers, watch the debate is like watching the Simpsons," Lehane says. "They're trying to get a sense of the characters."
After the debates, the spinners will descend and the media will report, but really, Lehane says, it will take a few days for the story of the debate to become clear, after the first polls come in.

"Then we'll know what Americans really think" about who won the debate, he says.

My thanks to Brunswick Group for the invitation to their luncheon this week in San Francisco about politics and business, where I got to speak with Clark and Lehane.