Wake Up To Politics Goes for a SpinA firsthand account
- As the Democratic candidates for President descended on Des Moines, Iowa Saturday, all the usual suspects were there to join them: surrogates, pundits, reporters, party elite, caucus voters. And me.
- In the weeks leading up to the debate, I had been in frequent contact with the Democratic National Committee as I went about acquiring media credentials. A DNC representative and I traded emails back and forth until finally it had been confirmed: I was to be given a press pass for access to the second Democratic presidential debate of the 2016 cycle.
- And so, on Friday afternoon, my mom picked me up from school early and we set off for the drive to Des Moines: Hillary Clinton, here I come!
- Many hours later, the Wake Up To Politics editorial staff – myself, and my mother/driver/Assistant Editor – arrived at Drake University, the debate venue, on Saturday morning. We found our way to the building designated for the weekend as the Press Filing Center where we claimed the two sets of credentials waiting for us.
- What, exactly, is a Press Filing Center? In Des Moines, it was rows of tables and chairs set up in the gymnasium normally home to the Drake Bulldogs basketball team. Journalism is, as Bloomberg’s Mark Halperin reminded me, “not a very honorable profession,” and this gymnasium/Filing Center was certainly not glamorous. But there were cookies, “Face the Nation” gift bags, and all around me, members of the national media. To me, no place in the world is cooler.
- No reporters are allowed in the debate hall during the main event, but we were taken on a tour of the auditorium earlier that day, an opportunity to walk around the stage where Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O’Malley would spar in just a few hours. For someone (such as myself) who has watched a number of presidential debates, but never been on the stage of one, this tour was a unique behind-the-scenes look.
- Finally, burning questions were answered. What is on the moderators’ table? Two screens: one showing the candidates, the other would show tweets sent in with the hashtag #DemDebate. What’s behind the candidates’ lecterns? A Staples pad and two FlexGrip Elite pens.
- After CBS executives announced our time in the debate hall was up, my mom and I took to the streets of Des Moines for a stroll around the Drake campus to see if we would run into anybody. Before long, we had our answer, when I stopped Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz standing at a street corner up ahead.
- During our impromptu interview, Wasserman Schultz laid out for me what she expected to occur at the debate. “I think [Americans will] be able to see a sharp contrast between the Republican candidates who have been engaged in an immature, childish food fight criticizing each other and our candidates,” the DNC chair told me. “And that’s going to make sure that our nominee is ultimately elected President.”
- I also asked Wasserman Schultz about the few number of debates Democrats are holding this cycle (six in total, compared to the 12 being held by Republicans this cycle). “We have the same number of debates…that were sanctioned by the DNC in 2004 and 2008,” she said, also noting that “we have three candidates remaining, and we had about five total to begin with. [The Republicans] started with 17, now they have 14, so proportionately, [we are] at about the same number.”
- After I had asked a few more questions, and she had spewed a few more talking points, I thanked the Chairwoman for her time and continued walking. For more on my pre-debate adventures on the Drake University campus, Faces of Des Moines is coming soon!
- When it came time to actually watch the debate, I was struck by the similarities between watching with member of the press and watching a debate on my living room couch. Yet, hundreds of members of the national media were present in Des Moines. Representatives of all the major news organizations were in the press file…why even come to the debate site at all? Because for the journalists, the debate didn’t end when the curtain was drawn. A whole second act awaited:
- The Spin Room has been a staple of presidential debates since 1984, when Ronald Reagan’s “spin patrol” made themselves available for numerous media interviews to ensure the president emerged victorious in his debate with Walter Mondale.
- How much does the Spin Room actually change media coverage of the debate? It’s hard to know, although one thing is certain: Immediately after the 1984 debate, most reporters thought Walter Mondale won. The “spin patrol” must have changed something, because Ronald Reagan carried 49 states out of 50 that November.
- True to its name, the Spin Room is definitely a dizzying experience. After getting over the initial awe at being in my first Spin Room, I soon joined in with the legions of reporters trying to get quotes from an array of campaign representative eager to supply them, all claiming their candidate won the debate. And apparently, there were a lot of winners Saturday night.
- “I thought Governor O’Malley did an excellent job, and I’m not paid to say that.” Assistant Iowa Attorney General Nathan Blake told me in the Spin Room. “I thought he was really strong coming right out of the gate... I thought he was really forceful and really clear about where he sees [national security] challenges... I thought he did a great job pointing to his record in Maryland.”
- “I think he won the debate,” Blake concluded.
- For some reason, Jeff Weaver, Bernie Sanders’ campaign manager (who is paid to say so) disagreed. “I thought Senator Sanders dominated the debate,” Weaver told me. “I think the issues that he's talking about are the issues dominating the discussion in the presidential election on the Democratic side. I thought he was able to draw some pretty clear contrast between himself and Secretary Clinton on important issues, particularly around income inequality and breaking up the big banks. So I thought it was a very good night.”
- Imagine my surprise when California Rep. Xavier Becerra, Clinton surrogate, had a different opinion. “I think we saw the Commander-in-Chief of the future in Hillary Clinton,” Becerra, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, told me. “Because I think she’s been the most tested candidate that we’ve had in the time that I can think back of people running for President. She’s ready to lead, she’s proven it, and I think she would be not just a good President, but a great President.”
- I continued circulating the room, speaking to Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (“Hillary Clinton in particular was one of the sharpest, most detailed candidates”); Symone Sanders, national press secretary at Bernie 2016 (“I thought Bernie did great”); and many others, asking them an array of questions. In addition to campaign surrogates, I also asked questions of DNC representatives, and apparently the entire Democratic Party won Saturday night.
- “I think we saw our 45th President of the United States on stage tonight,” DNC communications director Luis Miranda told me; Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, secretary of the DNC, struck a similar tone. “I’m convinced more than ever that the next President of our country was up on that stage,” she said.
- As the youngest person in the Spin Room that night (to my knowledge), I also took it upon myself to ask each campaign about their plans for young Americans. I thought of that question at some point during the night, and kept asking it because A) for obvious reasons, it’s an issue I care about and B) it isn’t a questions the campaigns were expecting, forcing them to break out of their endless talking points.
- I even got to pose my question to an actual candidate: Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, the only Democratic contender to brave the Spin Room. When I noticed O’Malley was taking questions, I squirmed my way to the inner circle of journalists who had surrounded him. “Last question,” an aide announced. So, I raised my voice above the other reporters, asking “Governor, why do you think you will be the President for young people in this country?”
- Gov. O’Malley look right at me, and answered: “Because I know that in your view of our world, and our country, that climate change is real, that you want your government do something about it, and I know that in your generation, that you won’t find many young Americans who want to bash new American immigrants, or want to deny rights to gay couples, or their kids.”
- “So all of that tells me your generation has it right, we need to listen to you, we need to speak to the goodness that all of you carry in your hearts, and your yearning for a much more connected and compassionate and generous world. And that’s why I'm running: I’m running to get us to your generation, and to give this country and this planet better to you than we received it. Thanks for asking,” he concluded, before his entourage ushered him out of the Spin Room.
- Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver, meanwhile, argued that his candidate would be the best President for young people. “He’s talking about the need to expand universal education in this country, so it includes college and not just high school,” Weaver said. “He’s talking about building an economy so that young people have access to decent-paying jobs. There’s a lot of issues that he's speaking about that are speaking to young people, about the vision that they share with him for a new America.”
- Weaver also cited Sanders’ success in polls of young Americans: “It’s just a factual matter that if you look at the nature of this election, you are seeing that…he’s winning young people by two are three times what Secretary Clinton is,” Weaver said.
- But when I asked Clinton surrogate Xavier Beccera the same question, the California congressman offered no real answer. “Because I think she's been the most tested candidate that we’ve had in the time that I can think back of people running for President. She's ready to lead, she’s proven it, and I think she would be not just a good President, but a great President,” failing to once mention young people.
- However, I ran into another Clinton supporter, much closer to my age, more willing to talk about issues facing young voters. Kevin Maisto, student body president at Drake University, wasn’t in the Spin Room for a particular candidate, although he told me he plans to caucus for Hillary Clinton. Maisto and I also discussed the attention paid to young people at the debate.
- “Honestly no,” he answered, when I asked if he thought issues facing young Americans were discussed enough. “But I say that only because there was so much of a focus on national security, due to the attacks in Paris, so I understand a little bit of why there wasn’t…There's always room for more talk about young issues, because those are the future. But I think tonight, it needed to focus on national security. Next debate, I’m hoping to talk a little bit more about…issues facing young people and young voters.”
- And then, of course, Luis Miranda of the DNC had an answer ready on why their party as a whole was best for young Americans. Miranda explained that the Democratic candidates “understand that young Americans…need investments in education, so that they’re actually coming out prepared to take on the jobs of the 21st century. We have candidates on the Democratic side who are serious about those investments…On the other side, you have candidates who think they wanted you to be on your own, and they don’t want to invest in your education….So they’re trying to get rid of the Education Department, they’re trying to limit opportunities; we’re trying to expand them. So we’re definitely the party for young people,” he said.
- I kept on circulating the room, going around and around, chatting with politicians and reporters alike – and even the folks from Twitter. Soon, though, someone was tapping at my shoulder. It was nearly midnight; my mom had finally convinced security to let her join me the Spin Room. The buzz of activity that had occupied the room hours ago had dimmed; the spinning was over.
- The next day, much of the press corps stayed in Iowa to attend the various campaign events in the area. But the Wake Up To Politics news team was heading home. After all, the Editor-in-Chief had to get his homework done.
COMING SOON: Faces of Des Moines – Part II of My Debate Reporting
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