SPIN (AND PITCH) DOCTORS: Campaign
Strategies in Televised Political Debates
Michael I. Norton and George R. Goethals
Political campaigns frequently set low expectations (using a ‘‘low pitch’’) in televised
political debates to make the later claim that their candidates have done better than
expected. The limited credibility of campaign aides, coupled with the fact that per-
ception often conﬁrms expectations, makes this strategy psychologically problematic.
In Study 1, when no post-debate information was provided, lowering expectations for a
candidate led to lower ratings of performance. In Study 2, when positive feedback (a
post-debate ‘‘spin’’) was provided after a low pitch, participants did rate performance
positively, but only when the spin was supplied by a credible media source. The same
strategy when used by campaign strategists adversely impacted candidates, leading to
lower ratings of debate performance and network coverage.
Key words: televised political debates; expectations; credibility; media effects; political
‘‘We will die in this debate if we’re not there ﬁrst with our answers...’’
-Clinton campaign aide discussing post-debate strategy (The War Room, 1995)
Though maligned in recent years as little more than carefully choreo-
graphed performances, televised political debates remain the most visible,
public test of aspirant political candidates. Viewers claim to watch debates to
learn about issues and to decide for whom they will vote (Sears and Chaffee,
1979), and debates remain among the most watched programs on television
(Hellweg et al., 1992): Some 46.6 million people watched the ﬁrst debate
between Al Gore and George W. Bush in 2000 (Nielsen Media Research,
2000). Evaluations of debate winners and losers are highly correlated with
Michael I. Norton, Sloan School of Management, Massachusetts Institute of Technology,
Cambridge, MA 02139 (email@example.com). George R. Goethals, Williams College.
Political Behavior, Vol. 26, No. 3, September 2004 (
0190-9320/04/0900-0227/0 Ó 2004 Springer science+Business Media, Inc.