The Men Behind the Curtain: Debate 'Spin Patrols'

During and after every debate, the candidates' aides work hard to spin the narrative in their favor.

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A mic is the only thing that stands between the audience and its prey.

The post-debate "spin patrols" by both campaigns will be one of the most visible but least valuable aspects of the encounter between President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney Wednesday night. These spin moments have became basically useless and entirely predictable exercises.

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The spin patrols will work this way, based on past history: As the debate proceeds, aides for each candidate will circulate through the media center where the press corps will congregate to watch the debate on huge TV screens. The aides will distribute news releases praising their man's performance and criticizing his rival, even while the debate is still going on. At the same time, a stream of comments from each campaign will deluge the reporters on email, Twitter, Facebook, and other forms of "new media." Each side will be hoping to have a theme, even just a quote, show up in as many media stories as possible that night.

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Meanwhile, each campaign's high command will brainstorm privately to come up with a handful of themes to sell the media. One can predict that Team Obama will say Romney looked out of touch, and Team Romney will say Obama showed that he has nothing to offer but failed policies. That's because these are the themes that each side has settled on so far as their main pitches to the electorate, and they will want to emphasize them at the debate because so many Americans will be watching.

As the debate ends, no matter what really happens, the media center will be flooded with surrogates, campaign officials, elected representatives, independent strategists, celebrity commentators, and others, all trying to get attention. Some will be accompanied by aides who will hold signs bearing their names so reporters can spot them at a distance. Aides will also try to move their charges around the media center so they aren't kept cornered in one place for too long, and to help them with pre-cooked lines if they wander too far off script.

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Most of the surrogates will be looking for time on TV to shape first perceptions. The TV networks will be happy to oblige. At some point, reporters will probably start interviewing each other—especially on the 24-hour cable news shows that will be desperate to fill up air time.

It's become an example of excess on all sides. And this is all the more bizarre because the whole purpose of the debate is to let voters decide for themselves, not be guided by candidate spin or media analysis about what to think.

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  • Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog, "Ken Walsh's Washington," for, and is the author of "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He can be reached at and on Facebook and Twitter.