‘We Have Little to No Happiness Here’: Inside the Spin Room at the Seventh Democratic Debate

Even the dramatic moments at the showdown in Des Moines, Iowa, felt predictable

Members of the media work in the spin room during the seventh Democratic primary debate at the Drake University campus in Des Moines, Iowa, on January 14, 2020. Photo: Kerem Yucel/AFP/Getty Images

This much was clear: The journalists were tired.

During Tuesday night’s Democratic presidential debate in Des Moines, Iowa, I sat, alongside several hundred other journalists, in the event’s spin room: a large, open gymnasium inside Drake University’s athletics arena that was outfitted as a debate media hub. Reporters were squeezed together along rows of tables, surrounded by TV pods where nicely compensated correspondents could sprawl out and record their segments. We were about 1,600 feet from the school’s Sheslow Auditorium, the setting where six politicians — Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, and Tom Steyer — took to the stage once again to make their case for the Democratic presidential nomination. Whereas the media pit is harsh and utilitarian, the Sheslow Auditorium is beautiful, a 500-seat room that features ornate stained glass windows and TV-ready overhead lighting. It’s a bit strange, the fact that dozens of news outlets spent thousands to send their reporters to a debate that they wind up watching on screen anyhow. But, like any political event, the atmosphere surrounding the debate was at once excitable and chaotic — and if you want to nab a quote from a politician or campaign staffer, it’s a hell of a lot easier when you can bug them in person.

Tuesday marked the seventh debate in the primary, and arguably the most meaningful one, as it was the last one before the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3 that will substantially winnow the Democratic presidential field. For many exhausted reporters, the highlight of the night appeared to be spotting (and petting) Griff, Drake’s beloved bulldog mascot. Visiting Griff has practically become a mandatory campaign stop for Democratic hopefuls: Pretty much everyone has posed for a photo op with the seven-year-old dog. Sure enough, as he trotted through the spin room he was greeted by a chorus of coos.

“Why do people love Griff so much?” I, apparently a curmudgeon, mused at one point earlier in the evening.

A journalist standing nearby shot me an answer: “We have little to no happiness here.”

Even before Tuesday night, we all knew what the biggest storyline would be coming out of the seventh Democratic presidential debate.

First, the spat. When news broke Monday that Bernie Sanders allegedly told Elizabeth Warren in 2018 that he didn’t believe a woman could defeat Donald Trump, pundits were quick to forecast the next debate’s biggest flashpoint. Here was an opportunity for Warren to put her stamp on the night — and, potentially, to help deflate the surging Sanders, who some polls show leading the field in Iowa. After Warren issued a statement late Monday timidly confirming the allegation (which Sanders denies) — “I thought a woman could win; he disagreed,” she said — a debate night face-off was all but guaranteed.

And sure enough, some 43 minutes into the debate, moderator Abby Phillip asked Sanders not whether he had told Warren a woman couldn’t beat Trump, but simply asked why he told her that.

“Well, as a matter of fact, I didn’t say it,” Sanders replied.

That denial apparently fell flat as Phillip turned to Warren to ask: “Senator Warren, what did you think when Senator Sanders told you a woman could not win the election?”

“The only people on this stage who have won every single election that they’ve been in are the women,” Warren responded, her comments drawing thunderous applause.

And that was that. Just three minutes later the conversation had moved on. But we had our first signature moment from the night.

The theatrics of the Warren/Sanders exchange added some liveliness to what was an otherwise dull evening. In a nutshell: the Democrats sparred over health care policy, how best to deal with tensions with Iran, the child care crisis, climate change, and trade; Biden was put on the defensive for his vote for the Iraq war; and the question of electability once again loomed large over the contest with Phillip at one point asking Biden whether he was ready for all the nicknames, mud-slinging, and lies Trump was sure to bring. “I am prepared for that,” Biden predictably replied.

And while impeachment once again cast a shadow over the debate — this time because the House revealed it would deliver new evidence tomorrow to the Senate ahead of its impeachment trial — it led to some familiar soundbites. “What that impeachment trial is going to show once again to the American people, and something we should all be talking about, is the corruption of this administration,” said Warren. “This is a decency check on this president,” added Klobuchar.

After two hours the debate was over, and that’s when the spin room came alive. Swarmed by cameras and microphones, campaign surrogates — people like former Obama Housing Secretary Julián Castro, stumping for Warren; and Sanders’ presidential campaign co-chair Nina Turner — started to file into the room. (The first candidate to enter the room was Steyer, who came in but breezed past the scrum as he went to sit down with Hardball’s Chris Matthews).

Predictably, the chatter in the room centered around the Warren/Sanders row.

“It was not fair that [CNN] asked that question,” said Turner, referencing Phillip’s skeptical framing. “Tonight was unfair.”

Warren’s camp preferred to minimize the dispute. “It was resolved before it was started,” longtime political strategist John Norris told me. “They’ve had a long relationship. They chose tonight to not get dragged into the fight that was manufactured.“

“Both of them value progressive policies and are going to prioritize that and make sure that those are front in these conversations,” added Iowa Rep. Lindsay James.

James and Norris’ dismissal was echoed by Drake University political scientist Dennis Goldford. “The tempest over the question of whether a woman can become president was put to rest tonight. I’d be surprised if that lingered in any significant way,” he said.

Minutes after we spoke, nearly every major news outlet ran stories covering Warren and Sanders’ exchange. And a clip of Warren appearing to refuse to shake Sanders’ hand during a testy on-stage post-debate exchange began to go viral.

“Did anybody clearly break out? I don’t think so,” Goldford continued. “Democrats still have a tough choice ahead of them.”

That means voters have yet another opportunity to make a judgment: The eighth debate is scheduled to take place in New Hampshire in less than a month, just ahead of that state’s Feb. 11 primary, and four more debates are scheduled for later in the year. Once again the field of Democrats will take the stage, and once again the journalists will throng at a distance. Only this time there won’t be a bulldog around to cheer everyone up.

Writer and editor. Previously at Medium, Pacific Standard, Wired

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