CLEVELAND, Ohio — Before the two-hour Republican presidential debate wrapped up Thursday night, herds of reporters began lining up, pressing forward inch by inch.
First, 30 gathered in a small staging area. Then 40. Then 50, with video and audio equipment in hand. Eventually, hundreds packed into a throng that materialized in a matter of minutes, separated from the adjacent main stage by a black curtain.
Suddenly, as if an invisible racing flag were dropped, the herd lurched forward, fanned out and descended upon the 10 red laminated plastic posts, held by volunteers and staffers, etched with each of the candidates’ names in white capital letters.
Welcome to Spin Alley at the Republican presidential primary debate in Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena, where every candidate’s surrogates and supporters want to tell you why their candidate won the night.
But the herd of reporters didn’t exactly fan out. Like flies drawn to light, the press swarm veered toward a staffer holding a sign mounted on a red plastic post with white letters: “TRUMP.” The real-estate magnate was there, doing his own spin.
“The questions to me were not nice,” Donald Trump said to a media audience that had waited all night for less than five minutes of face time with him. “According to what everyone was telling me, I won the debate.”
So-called spin rooms like the one in Cleveland are where reporters speak post-debate with participants and their boosters. Through the crowded, elbow-your-way crush, journalists ask questions and try to cut through the rehearsed talking points and “spin” making the case that a candidate had the complete upper hand, no matter what actually went down on stage.
The practice of the “spin room” has been dismissed as out of date in an Internet age in which response and reaction is immediate through various forms of social media, including Twitter. But on a practical level, the spin room still makes sense: It serves as official, on-the-record analysis and also follow up on what was just said – and left unsaid.
Spin Alley was particularly chaotic Thursday night, thanks to the expansive field of Republican presidential hopefuls.
“It would’ve been tough to have 17 candidates up here,” Fox moderator Megyn Kelly said at the opening of the prime-time debate. “It would’ve been like herding cats.”
Fox anticipated the challenge of putting together a coherent format with so many likely participants, when it announced in May the rules for the debate that it sponsored along with Facebook and the Ohio Republican Party.
Because of the large 2016 Republican field, Fox limited the field to candidates in the top 10 based on an average of the five most recent national polls. The network later added the additional forum at 5 p.m. for candidates who didn’t qualify for the main debate.
The format and plethora of candidates meant each of Thursday night’s spin crowds – after both the preliminary debate and the main event — were bigger and more chaotic than at any time in recent memory.
Ali Pardo, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, said media and candidate credential requests were “astronomical.”
The Ohio Republican Party closed ticket application for the debate in the arena – home of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers — earlier than anticipated due to the huge demand, saying more than 7,000 requests for tickets to the first showdown of GOP hopefuls had been received.
There press was mostly quiet for the 5 p.m. debate, smirking and snickering at points — like when Fox News moderator Martha MacCallum asked Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal why he was losing popularity in his home state.
After the second-tier debate at 5 p.m., reporters cruised through the cordoned-off spin section, bouncing between each of the seven candidates for bite-size quotes. But the spin cycle rhetoric was mostly standard fare.
“Look, I think I’ve got the best combination of backbone, of bandwidth and experience,” Jindal said. “And I think that’s the reason we’re gaining ground in Iowa, and we’re jumping up in the polls. So that’s why I don’t worry about the competition. I have great confidence I’ll be the nominee and I’ll win the election.”
“I respect my colleagues, but nobody has the background experience and judgment I do when it comes to this nation,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina).
“These are quality, capable men and women, who have great records, who I’m honored to stand on the stage with. Now with that said, I think I’ve got the best record of anybody on the stage, whether it’s that stage or the next stage,” said former Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
All that changed with the prime-time debate – as the Trump factor, and question of his presence at the scrum in spin alley afterwards, hung over the entire debate.
Even before the big event began, the question of Trump’s presence rippled through the press area.
“Is he coming?”
“Have you heard?”
“His people told the RNC he’s gonna come. It’ll be crazy.”
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