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Capturing voters' eyes, losing hearts

September 27, 2003|TIM RUTTEN

That slight malaise you've been feeling for the past day or so isn't indigestion or an incipient headache.

You feel as you do because there's a battle being waged for your heart and mind.

There was a debate.

It was on television.

What you're feeling is the mild nausea that comes from being spun.

To understand why, we need to go back nearly half a century, to 1960 and the televised confrontation between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, the ur-debate of American politics. (Yes, of course, there was Lincoln-Douglas, but those debates had large audiences, great issues and vast eloquence. Debates nowadays resemble those in the same way that "Survivor" resembles "Hamlet.")

In any event, today it is an article of dogmatic faith among political consultants and strategists that Americans who watched the presidential candidates in the 1960 campaign debate on television thought Kennedy had won; those who listened to radio or read the accounts in the next day's newspapers thought Nixon came away the victor. In the years since, various historians have revisited this notion and the weight of their opinion is that the conventional wisdom is not true, but nobody really cares.

"The research on what actually happened isn't entirely clear, but it's now believed that that happened," said CNN political analyst Bill Schneider, a former advisor to the Los Angeles Times Poll. "As a result, it's an accepted belief that no matter what really happens in a debate, the minute it's over, perception becomes reality."

What counts, in other words, is that consultants and strategists believe 1960 taught them that responses to a political debate are not just various but malleable. Hence spin, the inexact but systematic science of turning voters and those who influence them in your candidate's direction.

Campaigns begin that process by coaching their candidates to say or do something likely to generate the event's most used film clip or to be recounted in the leads of the next day's news stories. Immediately after the debate, they make all sorts of operatives and political fellow spirits available to explain to reporters what reporters have just seen.

Wednesday's confrontation of the five front-runners from among the 135 candidates vying to replace Gov. Gray Davis, if he is recalled, should have been a spinmeister's dream, but like nearly everything else about this novel political exercise, things may not follow the usual script.

Certainly, the sheer size of the debate's audience made the popular perception of what occurred a prize worth capturing. Statewide, 2.4 million households watched the debate. In Greater Los Angeles -- California's richest source of votes -- that translated into 1.6 million viewers, more than watched the last presidential debate between George W. Bush and Al Gore.

Thirty-eight percent of the metropolitan area's televisions were tuned to the debate, which gave it a local audience a little smaller than the last Super Bowl but slightly larger than the one that watched "American Idol's" two-hour finale. Figures were similar in San Francisco, where nearly 1 million people watched, and in the Sacramento area, where there were nearly half a million viewers. (Fewer than 100,000 watched in San Diego, perhaps because only one local station carried it live.)

Some analysts think those numbers, impressive as they are, understate the importance of the debate's audience. That's because the number of likely voters obviously is far smaller than the number of television set owners. Since most of those who watched the debate are likely to vote and because voters tend to watch debates in groups, as many as three-quarters of the Californians who will vote in the recall may have watched the debate, analysts say.

"I think it was a monumental audience," said veteran Republican pollster and strategist Arnold Steinberg, "and the huge number of people who saw the debate themselves may make the spin a little less important, but only slightly so. That's because even when they see a debate for themselves, people have come to rely on the spin to validate their opinion." When a campaign's spin successfully establishes the conventional wisdom about a debate's outcome, he said, "many people tend to revisit their original opinion and reevaluate what they think."

Then there's the ambiguous result of the debate itself. In part, that was a consequence of having five candidates participate. In part, it was the result of a cockamamie format and a uniquely goofy moderator, Stan Statham, president of the California Assn. of Broadcasters, the event's sponsor.

Steinberg charitably dismissed Statham as "pedantic," noting that he is a former assemblyman who heretofore was best known for his proposal to split California into three states.

"The debate was terrible, and he was an embarrassment," said CNN's Schneider. "He was just awful and let the debate go totally out of control.

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