Debate Pivots: How Politicians Get Away With Dodging The Question In political debates, candidates frequently avoid uncomfortable topics by diverting the conversation to an unrelated strength. Many politicians hire debate coaches who have perfected this technique, called "the pivot." So why do these dodges usually evade our cognitive radar? A psychologist explains.
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How Politicians Get Away With Dodging The Question

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How Politicians Get Away With Dodging The Question

How Politicians Get Away With Dodging The Question

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Years ago, I asked a government official a question. He said some words, but was candid about candid about not being candid. Notice he said, I am addressing your question, not answering it. It's worth recalling that difference as we prepare for a presidential debate tonight. Let's examine one of the techniques that candidates have used in the past to turn debate questions to their advantage. The technique is called the pivot by political professionals who do debate prep. And as NPR's Alix Spiegel reports, audiences are not very good at spotting it.

ALIX SPIEGEL, BYLINE: If you have watched a debate, you have watched a pivot.

BOB SCHIEFFER: New question, Mr. President.

SPIEGEL: It is 2004, the third debate between President George Bush and Senator John Kerry. And the moderator, Bob Schieffer of CBS, has a question. He wants to know what President Bush would say to a worker who has lost his job...

SCHIEFFER: ...lost his job to someone overseas.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I say, Bob, I've got policies that continue to grow our economy and create the jobs of the 21st century. And here's some help for you to go get an education.

SPIEGEL: There. Right there is the pivot. The moment Bush moves from a question about lack of jobs to an answer about education - specifically, Bush's signature No Child Left Behind legislation.

BUSH: I went to Washington to solve problems. And I saw a problem in the public education system in America. They're just shuffling too many kids through the system year after year, grade after grade without learning the basics.

SPIEGEL: Classic pivot. And according to debate consultants, candidates who are effective debaters, both Republicans and Democrats, use these pivots more or less constantly.

BRETT O'DONNELL: Frequently, better than 60 or 70 percent of the time, I would say.

SPIEGEL: This is Brett O'Donnell. O'Donnell is a debate consultant who trains Republican candidates. He's worked with George W. Bush, with John McCain, and for a short time earlier this year, with Mitt Romney. And for O'Donnell it is very clear, the pivot, it is critical for candidates.

O'DONNELL: The pivot is a way of taking a question that might be on a specific subject and moving it to answering it on your terms that best advances the message of the campaign.

SPIEGEL: Debates are not about debating, he tells me. They're about delivering a message to voters. And that's why you need the pivot, so you can quickly get to your message. And this view, by the way, is not unique to Republicans. Sam Popkin, a debate strategist who's helped at least two Democratic presidents develop their own pivots, agrees with O'Donnell.

SAM POPKIN: It's a sincere sounding evasion of the question.

SPIEGEL: So you mean a pivot is a dodge.

O'DONNELL: It's a dodge.

POPKIN: It's a dodge.

SPIEGEL: It's a dodge. And if it's a good dodge it is totally invisible.

POPKIN: When it feels right, you don't notice.

O'DONNELL: If you get that the candidate is pivoting, then it's an ineffective pivot.

SPIEGEL: So how good is the average viewer at detecting the average pivot? There's a man at Harvard who actually has an answer to that question.

TODD ROGERS: My name is Todd Rogers. I am an assistant professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.

SPIEGEL: Todd Rogers got interested in looking at dodges, or pivots, or whatever you want to call them, after watching the 2004 Bush/Kerry debate that you heard earlier. To him, the dodging on both sides of that debate was enraging, and he couldn't understand why others did not feel the same.

And so to find out, Rogers decided to do a study which tried to test what a typical viewers sees when they watch a debate. Here's what he did.

ROGERS: We record a moderator asking a politician a question. Moderator will say...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Candidate one, what will you do about the...

ROGERS: What will you do about the health care problem in the America? The politician will say, I'm glad you asked me that.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I'm glad you asked this question. There's so many challenges facing America today. Many of our problems have arisen because too many Americans cannot afford the care that they need.

SPIEGEL: So, a health care in gets a health care answer.

But what would happen if you gave the same answer to a question about illegal drugs? Or even a question about terrorism? The viewers noticed when the answers are not responsive. And if they notice, do they hold it against the candidate?

Here's what Rogers found. When the question and the answer are about the same topic, like health care with health care, viewers...

ROGERS: Can recall the question asked, and they think that, you know, he's a likeable, honest and trustworthy.

SPIEGEL: When the question was about illegal drugs and the answer was about health care though, viewers suddenly couldn't remember the question. And because they couldn't remember the question, they didn't notice the dodge, and so didn't hold dodging against the politician.

ROGERS: Listeners thought he was just as honest, trustworthy and likable as the guy who actually answered the question.

SPIEGEL: It was only when the politician answered a terrorism question with a health care answer that people could actually tell.

ROGERS: Everyone noticed, and they thought he was a jerk.

SPIEGEL: Which led Rogers to this conclusion.

ROGERS: People are capable of detecting dodges - but only if they are very egregious. They don't appear to be capable of detecting subtle dodges.

SPIEGEL: Rogers says this is because we have limited attention, and most of the time when we are watching debates, we spend that attention on social evaluation - do we like the person? Are they trustworthy? And we're only generally monitoring content - unless the question and the answer are really, really far apart.

ROGERS: It raises some flags, and we direct our limited attention to assessing whether this person is doing something unusual by failing to answer the question and offering an egregiously different answer.

SPIEGEL: Rogers says this is why politicians can get away with dodging questions as much as 70 percent of the time.

ROGERS: Politicians are exploiting our cognitive limitation without punishment.

SPIEGEL: Now Rogers thinks that if the networks simply printed the moderator's questions at the bottom of the screen while the candidates answered, it would really help viewers; it would help them identify the dodging, and also it would make the voters better informed.

ROGERS: It's specifically the questions that politicians don't want to answer that we actually need answers to.

SPIEGEL: But Brett O'Donnell, the Republican debate coach, doesn't think it will work. O'Donnell pointed out that during the Republican primary debates, CNN put the questions at the bottom of the screen as the candidates answered and even told the candidates before the debate that they were going to do that. But he says it didn't change how the candidates answered.

And as for viewers?

O'DONNELL: Don't think it's going to fix the problem. You know, first of all, most people are picture primacy anyway - more interested in looking at the candidate than reading on the screen. But I don't think there is a problem, to be honest with you. I think that when candidates stretch pivots too much the public will understand that they've not answered the question. And when don't stretch them, and they're pushing out their vision, I think that's a healthy thing.

SPIEGEL: Researcher Todd Rogers disagrees. He says he's already done another study that shows that printed questions do help watchers see pivots.

But as to whether ones identified - those viewers will see the pivots as a problem - that, Rogers says, he will leave for the viewers themselves to decide.

Alix Spiegel, NPR News, Washington.


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