The opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OnMilwaukee.com, its advertisers or editorial staff.
The "spin room" isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s basically like running the gauntlet or a political plank, and I don’t just mean for the candidates.
Think of it as a media politigasm.
It’s the place where the GOP presidential candidates (well, some of them, anyway) show up to joust like gladiators with the big, bad media beast. The candidates are supposed to show up right after the debate concludes to answer everyone’s endless – and often obnoxious – questions, but it ends up being a mad rush around the candidates – kind of like a political mosh pit, really, although no one lifted up and carried around Donald Trump (thank God).
You can barely see the candidates over the phalanx of cameras, iPhones and selfie sticks. The most enterprising photogs, the guys who’ve clearly done this before, bring ladders that they tote around the room, trailing candidates as they go.
Into this verbal (and mental) battle trudge the toughest candidates or the ones who know they are good at this or the ones who love being on TV or the ones who need to be or the fools. Although it’s supposed to be where they "spin" reporters, you can still learn a lot about the candidates by seeing them this way. It’s not quite unfiltered, but it’s less packaged and controlled than a debate stage. And some of the candidates seem different in here.
The media, national and local, was confined to the court of the UWM Panther Arena, as the debate unspooled in the Milwaukee Theatre next door. Half an hour before each debate concluded, underdog and main event, some of the media – including this reporter for OnMilwaukee – and the candidates, if they choose, are allowed to enter the spin room attached to the arena. It’s just a banquet hall style room.
If you’re perceptive, you can learn a few things that are important.
For one, it’s easy to see now how Gov. Scott Walker ended up in trouble on the national stage. I mean, you know this, but until you see it, you don’t really know it. It’s not that the state’s media were just too nice or didn’t ask tough questions of the governor; it’s that there are fewer of them – a lot fewer – and it’s a more orderly process. As in, a Wisconsin reporter asks Walker a question, and he gets a chance to think about it and gives a vague answer and then moves on. You can’t get away with never answering a straight question in the spin room because there are too many people coming at you in too many different ways, and they will ask it and ask it and ask it ... and it’s all on camera. Lots of cameras. It’s kind of the difference between swimming in the Fox River and paddling around with piranhas in the Amazon.
Very seasoned pols (or billionaires from New York) have learned to be good at this and control their message even when being hammered (sorry for the pun, Ben Carson) 100 different ways. Unpracticed ones would wobble. This isn’t something you can learn to do overnight, and they don’t prepare you for this in Ripon. I think Walker just wasn’t used to press of this scale and of this aggressiveness. And it showed. I also think you need to be a larger than life personality to make it on a national stage like this, a charismatic egotist probably – or an actor like Reagan was – and Walker’s kind of a wonky introvert. It all makes more sense now. But that’s water under the bridge.
This is all especially true for the courageous – or the crazy – candidates who decide to make their way down the rope line. Only this spin room rope line isn’t for hand shaking; it’s for enduring and fending off and parrying an endless series of questions and almost insults, some of them clearly designed to propel some reporter into the spotlight, such as when a reporter continually egged Ben Carson on by asking him in a shrill voice whether it was really his mother who was wielding the hammer or when another demanded to know if Mike Huckabee was about to quit. You don’t get much mileage out of non-gotchas. It’s literally a rope line, in that the candidate makes his or her way down the line along one side of the room. Think of it as a much nastier version of a wedding rope line with Donald Trump playing the happy groom, greeting guests who aren’t really very polite.
Trump is good at this. That’s clear too. He’s in wooing-the-media phase, whereas Ted Cruz did one big TV media interview in the spin room and then fled.
Not Trump. He stuck around. He did the rope line (so did Carson). One gets the impression that Trump likes doing this, gets off on it even, or at least he knows how to convey that impression. He swanned around the room, from here to there, talking to this reporter or that, pointing out several by name, even obscure ones, and smiling far more than he growled. This Trump is congenial, charismatic and not angry. The guy on stage comes across a lot pricklier and more defensive.
This is Trump trying really hard to seem nice, even to the media. It’s interesting that he’s trying to. Wasn’t this the guy who was supposed to be at war with the press? He acted like he was greeting old friends.
Trump is exceptionally good at creating a soundbite and relentlessly sticking to it, as it turns out.
"It was an elegant debate, just elegant, well run," he said at one spot on the rope line before moving down a ways. "Elegant debate," I heard him tell another reporter a few minutes later, "I enjoyed it." No matter what they asked, he stayed on positive and simple message. Asked about polls, he said how great he was doing. And so forth. Wrestling with the voracious New York media for a couple decades has served him well here. He’s clearly morphed from "Yeah, Rosie is a dog, and the media suck," to a new kinder, gentler phase. Not sure the public wants Trump 2.0 though. The strategy could backfire. Warring with the media defined him.
He also brought along Melania, who is even prettier in real life than she is in pictures and a bit of an elusive persona, as she stood to Trump’s side, never smiling and saying nothing, mysterious and sartorially as elegant as Jackie O. She doesn’t seem like she’s very comfortable with politics, though (and not sure why the small purse she carried featured a Union Jack, either). None of the other candidates toted their families along into the spin room. Trump’s stern-looking sons followed him around too, almost resembling secret service agents with their darting gazes and non-smiling faces. No Ivanka, though.
Ben Carson was similar to Trump. He jumped right into the middle of it all, he worked the rope line and he’s good with the media. He avoids being baited, and he sticks to his own style with confidence and ease, dodging the mean-spirited questions without getting defensive. This is working for him right now. Carson seems even less like a politician than the glad handing schmoozing Trump. Honestly, sometimes the guy sounds a bit like he’s about to fall asleep. But his ho-hum, thoughtful demeanor works for him, and he’s at ease with a bunch of cameras being stuck in his face. Carly Fiorina, too, seems pretty practiced at this, although she didn’t traverse the rope line.
Rand Paul came and went so fast I missed him. John Kasich, too.
But, somewhat oddly, the guy who’s been the talk of Wisconsin (pols anyway) lately – Marco Rubio – never showed his face in the spin room. Jeb Bush didn’t make an appearance, either. Both of them sent out operatives to spin for them.
It’s hard to know what to make of that. The two front-runners (Carson, Trump) strutted around with ease, wading into the scrum. But they’re also opening themselves up to a lot of stuff. It strikes me that, if you can’t tangle with the media and hold your own, though, it’s going to be hard to survive as president – or make it there. You might think that front-runners wouldn’t enter the spin room because they don’t need it, so why risk it? But in this case, it was the guys who needed it most who didn’t walk in. Maybe that’s why they’re not leading.
In fact, there was almost no Wisconsin presence in the spin room, which was surprising. No Reince Priebus, no Scott Walker, no Paul Ryan, no legislative leaders. The only Wisconsin pol I saw in there was Sen. Ron Johnson. He’s grown a goatee (don’t politicians usually grow beards after they lose?), and he spent a lot of time talking to the Journal Sentinel. Most of the national reporters were apparently too busy yelling questions at Trump and Carson to notice.
Jessica McBride spent a decade as an investigative, crime, and general assignment reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and is a former City Hall reporter/current columnist for the Waukesha Freeman.
She is the recipient of national and state journalism awards in topics that include short feature writing, investigative journalism, spot news reporting, magazine writing, blogging, web journalism, column writing, and background/interpretive reporting. McBride, a senior journalism lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, has taught journalism courses since 2000.
Her journalistic and opinion work has also appeared in broadcast, newspaper, magazine, and online formats, including Patch.com, Milwaukee Magazine, Wisconsin Public Radio, El Conquistador Latino newspaper, Investigation Discovery Channel, History Channel, WMCS 1290 AM, WTMJ 620 AM, and Wispolitics.com. She is the recipient of the 2008 UWM Alumni Foundation teaching excellence award for academic staff for her work in media diversity and innovative media formats and is the co-founder of Media Milwaukee.com, the UWM journalism department's award-winning online news site. McBride comes from a long-time Milwaukee journalism family. Her grandparents, Raymond and Marian McBride, were reporters for the Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Sentinel.
Her opinions reflect her own not the institution where she works.