John Sides reports today on some research which confirms what we all basically know: winning the spin matters more than winning the debate. That is, as Kim Fridkin et al. find, reactions differed to a 2004 debate depending on whether people just watched the debate; watched the debate and news coverage; or just watched the news coverage. As John says, there's evidence from earlier cycles for the same effect.
What I'm wondering about, however, is how the spin is going to work this time around. Who is going to select the clips that everyone sees, which therefore become the memorable moments? How is it going to work? Who are the gatekeepers these days, and how do parties and campaigns influence them?
In the old days, the key players were the producers and pundits at the broadcast, and then cable, networks. They had the first word, influenced or not by campaign spinners, and presumably what they selected out in their immediate reactions would also lead the morning shows then play all day on the cable networks. Then in the somewhat less old days we had live-blogging and immediate post-debate reactions. My general sense is that bloggers had relatively less influence on general election debate reactions than on other stories, thus leaving the TV networks and their teams still the ones who were driving reactions, although I have no idea whether that's correct or not.
But at any rate, that's the old days. This is a case where it really Could Be Different now, thanks to twitter and YouTube. It was always true that the bulk of decisions about winners and losers and key moments were made before the debate was over (and the campaign actively worked to influence those choices before the debate was over), but most or all of that was happening at the debate site and among a fairly small group of people. Now, there's a whole second process going on, with a broader group of reporters, pundits, experts, partisans, and others all following each other on the twitter machine (yes, bloggers have been live-blogging debates for a few cycles now, but that's a much different thing). And then there's the YouTube side of it; these days, there's no guarantee that the clips selected by the networks are going to be the most seen clips.
Certainly during the GOP primaries the twitter chatter seemed to be how the national press formed its consensus about what had happened and what the key moments had been, and that was all happening immediately. However, general election debates are a whole different ballgame, so I suppose we'll see how it all turns out. One thing: this certainly seems to be an area for media studies specialists to do some very helpful research.
Important caveat: as John reminds us, most people who bother to watch the debates have already made up their minds, and therefore filter what they hear through those decisions. So debates aren't all that likely to make much of a difference one way or another, however the spin works. Still, debates can be important in other ways, and one way or another they certainly get a lot of attention, and therefore I'm definitely interested to see how they work this time around.