Photograph by Antonia Hitchens.
Last night, the fourth Republican debate took place in Alabama; Nikki Haley, Chris Christie, Vivek Ramaswamy, and Ron DeSantis took the stage. Immediately thereafter, news outlets started publishing “takeaways” and declaring winners. (Notably absent was the frontrunner in the polls, Donald Trump.) We were curious, in the lead-up to this debate, about what goes on behind the scenes of this staged media event, so we asked Antonia Hitchens, who’s been reporting on the presidential campaign, to write a dispatch from the “spin room,” where she spent one of the previous debates, in September, in Simi Valley.
I drove from my apartment in LA to Simi Valley to attend the second Republican presidential debate, and when I arrived, at 1 P.M., the media lot was already so full that I had to park on grass, like at a music festival. Three women from a national newspaper got out of the rental car next to me, carrying their blazers over their arms to put on later, talking about trying the twenty-dollar smoothie at Erewhon while they were in town. I waited in line to board a bus that brought us to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, a mission-style building on a mountaintop, overlooking the valley below. I followed streams of people from the bus into a huge white tent, like at a wedding, for journalists to file their stories.
Inside, dozens of long tables were draped in navy tablecloths and littered with advertisements for Reagan’s Bar and Bistro, which was serving made-to-order food from 7 A.M. to 10 P.M., during filing time. The Reagan Library has a partial replica of the White House Rose Garden and a full-scale replica of Reagan’s Oval Office and the Situation Room; the media “filing zone” had been set up on the “White House South Lawn.” Also scattered on the property are an F-117 Nighthawk, an F-14, and an Abrams tank. Fox News, the event’s host, hung its Fox Business “Democracy 2024” banner opposite a banner advertising the Southern California showing of a traveling exhibit called Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away. I walked past it to the museum gift shop, where the Ventura County bomb squad browsed together in a small group, looking at “Commander in Chief” desk decals.
As a non–TV anchor, the only place I could go outside of the filing center was the spin room, the place for each candidate and their team to come out after the evening’s debate and say that they won. Per William Safire, the term “spin doctor” was first used in 1984. Regarding that October’s Reagan-Mondale at the Kansas City Music Hall, the New York Times wrote: “Tonight at about 9:30, seconds after the Reagan-Mondale debate ends, a bazaar will suddenly materialize in the press room of the Kansas City Municipal Auditorium. A dozen men in good suits and women in silk dresses will circulate smoothly among the reporters, spouting confident opinions. They won’t be just press agents trying to impart a favorable spin to a routine release. They’ll be the Spin Doctors, senior advisers to the candidates, and they’ll be playing for very high stakes. How well they do their work could be as important as how well the candidates do theirs.” A witness to the same debate described what ensued after each candidate left his podium: “It was very intense. I just remember these clumps, masses of reporters around each clump.” Phalanxes. Twenty years later, in 2004, the Times reporter Adam Nagourney deemed spin rooms “degrading” and encouraged his colleagues in the press to stay away. I wanted to see the 2024 iteration of spin rooms, particularly since Trump, the Republican front-runner, is so far ahead he doesn’t even bother coming to the debates or coming out afterwards to declare he won.
Pre-debate, there was nothing to spin, just a few rows of chairs under fluorescent light, where some people were sitting and starting to write their stories. A rope delineated the main floor from the part of the room where each network had its cameras set up. Around 4 P.M., a crowd started to gather around the rope. Someone had walked onto the Univision broadcasting platform to get miked up. I wondered if everyone was flocking over to the governor of North Dakota, Doug Burgum (1 percent in the polls at the time; has since dropped out) like he was a celebrity because any candidate sighting gave them a sense of urgency. It turned out to be the governor of California, Gavin Newsom; their hair looked similar from behind.
“He’s devastatingly good-looking, come get a look,” one reporter said to the gathering crowd as Newsom settled in for his TV spot.
When Newsom turned to the press gaggle, one guy dragged over a crate to stand on, holding out his iPhone to record what Newsom—whose voice barely rose above a whisper—was saying. A TV reporter waded around the periphery of the scrum, wearing a cord that attached him to his cameraman like a leash. The teenage event volunteers in Reagan Library T-shirts stood to the side, monitoring the group.
With three hours still to go before start time, sick of looking at my screens, I sat on the patio of Gipper’s Bar and Bistro next to two VIP debate guests—the official audience members vetted to sit watching live in the arena, like the studio audience at a sitcom taping—bored of mingling in their VIP area. One was Irish and one was from LA. They’d been invited because they worked at Rumble, an online video sharing platform that was streaming the debate. “They give us drinks and heavy hors d’oeuvres. It’s just nice to see something live. It’s a show,” one of them said.
From the scenic overlook of Gipper’s patio, I watched reporters take sunset photos using varying degrees of professional gear. As the light went down over the mountains, we could see the fleets of Escalades and police cars and trailers in which the candidates were being kept. Each candidate had a Star Waggon trailer, like on a movie set. Once they were escorted into the Air Force One arena to begin the actual two-hour debate performance, their campaign staffers wafted around their bosses’ trailers, mingling.
Watching the debate from the filing center isn’t that different from watching it at a bar, except that you can be observed writing or tweeting by hundreds of peers. I tried to avoid looking over people’s shoulders. Two rows ahead of me, in the spin room, I saw a woman write and then delete a lede mentioning Woody Allen.
During the last twentyish minutes of the debate, bodyguards in sunglasses and polo shirts made a human wall as people started to linger at the rope between the floor of the spin room and the network stand-up area, waiting for the candidates and campaigns and surrogates to emerge.
A group of Mike Pence (former Trump VP; has since dropped out) campaign staffers walked out briskly pushing a baby in a stroller and nobody really paid attention; it was hard to tell whether the baby was a Pence grandchild or a talking point or just the baby of one of the staffers who’d come to the debate with Pence. They never got the story out, because Sean Hannity walked by the rope next. It was like when a Broadway star comes out on the sidewalk to sign programs.
A reporter from a podcast shoved his microphone in Hannity’s face. “Why do you have a CIA pin on?”
Hannity looked down at his lapel. “I wear a lot of pins.”
A reporter from a military news website: “Do you always wear an FBI pin?”
The other campaigns were pouring out into the spin room in delegations, holding up narrow red signs with their candidate’s name on them to indicate they could be interviewed about that candidate.
A reporter fought to get to a woman holding a DeSantis sign: “How did he do?”
“He did great.”
The woman from the military news website reached out across the rope to a delegate holding a Vivek Ramaswamy sign.
“Do you remember me?” the reporter asked.
“Sort of, yes?” the Ramaswamy delegate responded, trying to read the reporter’s name on her badge. “I was with Dr. Oz last year,” she went on, referring to last year’s midterm elections, when the TV doctor Dr. Mehmet Oz ran for Senate in Pennsylvania.
“How are you liking this?” the reporter asked.
“I really like my candidate,” the delegate said.
After the sign holders did their red-carpet walk, they let themselves loose into the room on the other side of the rope to be chased around by reporters, roving around in packs and sometimes colliding with one another.
The only candidate other than Vivek Ramaswamy to cross the rope was Burgum, the still unknown North Dakota governor. He’d torn his Achilles playing basketball before the first debate in August and was still perched gingerly on a kneeling scooter. Onstage, he stood on two feet at the podium, but in the spin room it would be easy for him to be knocked flat or jostled. Per the logistics leaflet we were given beforehand: “As room traffic picks up following the debate in the Spin Room, we ask you to move with care and caution for candidate safety and security, and your own.”
A Pence campaign staffer stood a few paces away, pushing the stroller of the unidentified baby back and forth with one hand.
Newsom walked in eager to please, commenting on Taylor Swift and the football player she might have just started dating. “That’s the real debate!” he said to the crowd.
Meanwhile, the debate audience had been ushered into a sedate outdoor after-party, the one that the guys from Rumble thought would have heavy hors d’oeuvres. I wandered into the courtyard where it was being held, under the same kind of white wedding tent as the filing zone’s. Attendees had to keep on their badges that said “audience” just like we had to wear badges that said “press.” They had an open bar and a flaming ice cream station and a stand to buy Reagan paraphernalia. I smelled a bottle of perfume on the for-sale table next to jars of jelly beans. “That’s the scent President Reagan wore,” the woman manning the booth told me. I walked back over to the building with the spin room and took the elevator down with a group of several older people who had tired of the donor cocktail and wanted to keep watching a performance by sneaking into the spin room. They had brought their wineglasses with them. “This is gonna be way better,” one said to the others, waiting for the elevator doors to open.
Antonia Hitchens writes for the New Yorker, among other publications.
Last / Next Article