2012 Vice-Presidential Debate

Behind the Scenes at Debate, a Surreal Trip Inside the Spin Zone

At Centre College, frat boys, bourbon, and pundits looking for anyone who’ll listen. By David Freedlander.

Mark Humphrey / AP Photo


Residents of this tiny town in Kentucky horse country said that they had been preparing for weeks for Thursday night’s vice-presidential debate, dubbed The Thrill in the ‘Ville in the faux prize-fight posters that littered the campus where the face-off would be held. Centre College is something of a cradle of vice presidents, having graduated two of them—John Breckenridge and Adlai Stevenson—in the last century and hosting now two vice-presidential debates this century. A branding campaign had led the town to call itself “Little Mayberry,” something that residents said with a roll of their eyes, even if they looked on the area with considerable pride.

“A lot of people on the coasts have no idea where Kentucky is or how gorgeous it is,” said Karen Jansson, a retired professor at nearby Eastern Kentucky. She walked the campus with a friend before the main event on a pitch-perfect afternoon, while MSNBC held their pre-debate live show and a band ripped through Aerosmith covers at a nearby festival and the student body gathered on the main campus green for what looked like a day off from school.

What was she looking for at the debate?

“I just really want Biden to show his humor, his intelligence. Because of his language, people don’t always get that he knows what he is talking about.”

By the MSNBC stage, one student held a sign that said “Chris Matthews Listens to Nickelback.” Another nearby wore a wooden Delta hung over his neck, explaining that this particular cross was borne because “We Are Delta Kappa Epsilon. We wanted to show support.” He wore a T-shirt with a Paul Ryan quote on the back: “We believe, as our founders did, that the pursuit of happiness depends upon individual liberty, and individual liberty requires limited government.”

Across the lawn, a man walked by with the words “retired moocher” printed on the front of his shirt. He said he was a retired pipe designer, and had done the piping for the Wild Turkery distillery down the road. “If they are neck-and neck, Romney is going to win,” he predicted. “Republicans are crooked around the voting booth.”

Beforehand, Ryan aides framed the debate as a question of whether or not Biden would be able to stop the bleeding of the past week, when Barack Obama’s weak debate performance sent poll numbers spiraling. For Biden, aides said it was a question of whether or not Ryan would hew to the eponymous and controversial budget, or shift to the center as Romney had done. Questions of Ryan’s veracity, in light of his convention speech and fudged marathon time, would be on the table too. “At some point you are no longer speaking truth to power, you are just speaking, and not even the truth,” said one.

They pushed back too on the notion that their campaign was bleeding, pointing out that they had completed a run of successful weeks, and that they still had a firewall in the battleground states.

Still the stage was set, and thousands of reporters filled long tables running the length of Centre’s basketball court. They dined on “Moonshine Marinated Chicken” and jam cakes (“What’s in them?” one asked a server. “A whole lot of goodness,” was the reply.) and drank free beer from an Anheuser-Busch display, one festooned with posters touting the role that beer plays in the nation’s economy ($1.7 billion in federal beer excise taxes paid!)

Everywhere was bourbon, Kentucky’s finest export. In gift bags. In the hotel lobby. At a reception for media hosted by the governor of Kentucky.

The press was kept in a building apart from where the debate takes place so the effect of “covering the debate” means, in essence, “watching it on TV.”

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Still, there are benefits to being “on site,” as it were. Such as Spin Alley, that most peculiar of American political rituals, where advisers to the various campaigns stand next to aides with signs bearing their names, and explain why their man really won the debate. The experience is sobering for many of the surrogates, the Jim Talents and Bay Buchanans of the world, whom reporters aren’t clamoring to speak with, but instead are forced to wander around the spin room, their last name hovering over their head, while they look for a journalist willing to stick a microphone in their face for a few minutes.

And those that are the most sought after in the spin room aren’t the lions of Capitol Hill, or the governors who have come from around the nation, but the shadowy political operatives who run the campaigns. Thus, only David Axelrod and Jim Messina, the top two officials in the Obama campaign, were saved from saying the same thing over and over—“Joe Biden is Joe Biden. He is real and he is authentic” and “when the other side is talking about facial gestures and laughing, that is how you know they had a bad night”—by scheduled TV hits.

What becomes frightfully clear after a few minutes in the spin room is that anyone who is there has gotten their marching orders ahead of time. Thus over and over reporters are told how Biden was boorish and interruptive and the administration is misleading on Afghanistan.

“That is just not the way you act. You don’t make your point by just overrunning somebody else,” said Jason Chaffetz, a congressman from Utah, who earlier in the day was receiving attaboys from Republicans in the debate hall for “really taking it to those guys on this embassy thing.”

“Our country is unique that way. You give respect to the other person’s viewpoint.”

Or, they are told, over and over, about how Paul Ryan couldn’t get past his talking points, and couldn’t disavow his budget ideas.

“I thought there were times when Congressman Ryan looked really vapid and shallow and without any details or grasp with how the real world or real facts work,” said Martin O’Malley, governor of Maryland.

He turned to aide, as if asking permission, or seeking approval.

“I said ‘vapid.’”