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Team Biden’s Debate Assignment: Don’t Let Trump Win the Spin

by News7

A long time ago, a debate was just a debate. The media analyzed and dissected it, of course—but for a day or two in the print press, and a few hours on the television networks, after which the world moved on to the next thing. But that was back when we had three television networks giving America 30 minutes of news a night, no nonstop cable news, two big national newspapers, no web sites, no social media, and a small handful of prominent columnists like David Broder of The Washington Post; they’d render their verdict, and that was that.

Today, a presidential “debate” is a much larger phenomenon. It lasts, really, several days now. Cable news started with debate previews last Thursday, a week before Joe Biden and Donald Trump will square off in CNN’s Atlanta studios. The postmortems will surely last through the weekend, making for a debate-a-palooza that will clock in at 11 days.

And in those 11 days, the conventional wisdom may shift several times. Hence, my debate prognostication: On the night itself, the conventional wisdom and the flash polls will probably show Biden winning. But by the time Fox News and the rest of them are finished spinning it, they may well have convinced your average swing voter that Trump dominated Biden.

A little history will help explain this. I’ve looked up “who won the debate?” results for the full twenty-first century. Interestingly, the Democrat won almost every debate, according to the snap polls I could find. Even John Kerry—the only Democrat in this century to lose the popular vote, by about three million votes in 2004—prevailed. He won the first and third debates handily, while George W. Bush tied him in the second. As for these two contestants, Biden swept Trump in 2020. He won the first debate 54-39, according to one insta-poll. Another had it Biden 60-28. On the second and final debate, Biden won 53-39, according to one poll.

The only clear Democratic debate loss in this century was the first 2012 debate, when Mitt Romney aggressively repositioned himself to the center, defenestrating conservative positions he’d been espousing for months, while Barack Obama looked like his mind was on something else. (CNN’s flash poll gave that one to Romney by a whopping 67 to 25 percent.) Otherwise, Democrats tend to win, and often, win big.

I submit there’s a simple reason for that: Democratic positions on things are a lot more popular. When pundits and political insiders watch a debate, we tend to watch for style. The substance is old hat to us. We’ve heard it a thousand times, so pundits need something new to focus on. It’s shallow, but there it is. 

Voters, however, haven’t heard the candidates espouse their positions a thousand times. They’ve probably heard them a few times. Maybe they haven’t heard them at all. So they’re listening closely to the substance—to what the candidates have to say about taxes, investment, public education, abortion rights, climate, and so on, and majorities support Democratic positions on most major policy issues.

So Democrats tend to win. Republicans get this, so they know the task they have at hand—to spin things post-debate to try to change the result. The first time I remember seeing this in action was the very first debate of this century, between George W. Bush and Al Gore. Gore seemed to win on substance, but he used the word “lockbox” seven times, and he sighed too much. That did it. Here was Gore adviser Bob Shrum, speaking later: “I didn’t think Gore’s sighs were a really big deal until I got to the spin room. Reporters kept asking about sighs, reactions, exaggerations.” That weekend, Saturday Night Live’s cold open mocked Gore mercilessly on these points. Soon enough, the conventional wisdom was that Bush won, and it gave him some momentum. 

What does this mean for Thursday? Let’s stipulate that Biden doesn’t do something egregious like fall down, fall asleep, forget the name of the guy who runs China, that sort of thing. If he clears those relatively low hurdles, he’ll probably do well enough to win. He knows a lot more about substance and policy and the world than Trump does, and his positions are a lot more mainstream. I hope also that he’s been prepped to get under Trump’s skin. Call him a convicted felon, mention Stormy Daniels’s name, mock some of his weird Hannibal Lecter-style comments—just rattle him.

Biden has certainly lost a step or three since 2020, but if he does some version of all the above, he’ll probably be judged the winner by most of those who watched. But then Fox News and MAGA Tik-Tok and all the rest will throttle into gear and grab selected 12-second clips that show Biden stuttering a little or losing his train of thought. Also, Trump will undoubtedly get the better of him on an exchange or two. Finally, Trump, as Greg Sargent wrote last week, will go hard at Biden on immigration, and especially the “Migrant Killers” Trump proclaims to be an epidemic blighting the nation. That’s the moment MAGA world is going to be focused on. If Biden is caught flatfooted there, not only will post-debate MAGA spin work, but Biden might indeed just lose the debate outright.

That is Team Biden’s job this week: not only to have him ready for the event itself, but to be ready for a broad and multi-platform post-debate spin assault that will keep Fox and Trumpworld from dominating the news cycles. Their job will be made more difficult by the familiarity of both candidates—which means that the media will be even more focused on optics and less focused on policy than usual.  

I hope that Team Biden will have hundreds or even thousands of people ready to get to work from 10:31 pm Thursday through about the following 96 hours blasting out their own 12-second clips that make Biden look like Abraham Lincoln and Trump look foolish and/or dangerous. Sad to say the fate of the country may depend on who wins the Tik-Tok debate battle, but that’s where we are.  

Source : New Republic

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