Forget about the debate. Focus on the spin. What really counts is who wins the debate over the debate.
Ok--not really. The actual performances will matter--but just as important will be the post-debate spin that shapes public perceptions of who won, who lost, and why.
This week, as the candidates prep for their on-air performances, their teams of rapid responders, communicators, and researchers are prepping for their critical roles behind the scenes. Their work will get comparatively little attention from the media this week--but they will be crucial in determining who becomes our next President.
Do you remember the Clinton-Lazio debate in 2000? That was the one where Rep. Lazio invaded her space. Remember anything else?
How about the first Bush-Gore debate? Al Gore "sighed and lied." What else do you recall?
Clinton-Bush in 92? George Bush looked at his watch.
These takeaways don't just occur in a vacuum--campaign strategists make instant decisions during the debates themselves about what to highlight and focus on in the minutes, hours and days after the debate ends--and will relentlessly deploy research, surrogates, and even advertising to drive that narrative home.
It begins with the post-debate spin rooms--much derided by the media but still well attended by reporters--in which operatives from each side rush out to to shape the immediate coverage. It continues on conference calls to give hundreds of surrogates across the nation their marching orders. And it plays out for days as candidates and staff weigh in on the stump and on cable tv.
We were stunned in 2000 when Rep. Lazio blustered over to Senator Clinton's podium and waved a piece of paper in her face, bellowing that she sign it. We were even more surprised when it became clear that reporters watching thought Lazio had won by staying on offense. We were in danger of losing a debate that we had won. During the next 24 hours we worked hard to make Lazio's actions a negative--press conferences were scheduled around the state featuring outraged women condemning his actions. Surrogates and staff went on tv to say that he had looked menacing by approaching her. By the end of that week the consensus had shifted: It became clear that Lazio had lost and done himself immense harm.
The Bush campaign worked just as hard in 2000 to convince the public that Al Gore had lied and acted obnoxiously during their debate. That was not the immediate takeaway when the debate ended, but a relentless focus on Gore's misstatements and sighing proved devastating to the then Vice-President. In 2004, turnabout was fair play, as the D.N.C. produced a video overnight that was released the morining after the first Bush-Kerry debate that focused on President Bush's obvious annoyance at debating Senator Kerry. Called "faces of frustration", it helped ensure that the public credited Kerry with a win.
Of course spin can backfire too. We released a video called the "politics of pile on" after the Philadelphia debate of 2007 that featured Senator Clinton's opponents repeatedly invoking her name--and were roundly criticized for "playing the gender card."
Friday's debate will have a huge audience and that group of voters will make a judgement based on what they actually see and hear. An even larger group will form their impressions of the debates from the news in the days to come. And even the group that watched the debate will have their judgements tested and challenged by the media's analysis. This means that voters may decide that one candidate won the debate on Friday morning and have concluded by Monday that the other guy was actually victorious. That's why both campaigns will be doing everything they can from the opening bell to win the debate over the debate.
Howard Wolfson also blogs at Gotham Acme.Com.