Wednesday, October 3, 2012


NPR has a story up today about the horrors of candidates who duck questions in debates. Apparently there's a guy who is dedicated to eradicating this scourge:

Todd Rogers, a behavioral psychologist at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, got interested in looking at pivots, or dodges, or whatever you want to call them, after watching the 2004 Bush/Kerry debate I quoted earlier.

To him, the dodging on both sides of that debate was enraging, and he couldn't understand why others didn't feel the same.
Well, I don't feel the same, so I'll try to explain.

Rogers and others worried about this -- and in my experience, most people are on his side, not mine -- in my view have a fundamentally wrong view of what debates are all about. It's basically a goo goo idea of debates...voters should come into the debates open-minded, the candidates should speak (rationally, honestly) about "the issues" in order to give voters a good rational basis for making vote choices based on those answers.

I think that's about 75% fantasy. Voters don't watch the general election debates with an open mind; virtually everyone who watches has already decided, or is leaning so strongly that we can probably speak of them as having decided but not realized it yet. Most undecided voters, at any rate, don't have strong views on most issues, so they're not going to choose based on carefully comparing the candidates' positions to their own, anyway. That doesn't mean that debates are worthless; I'll have a post later today  on why I think debates are valuable anyway. But the implicit model here of what debates should be is mostly based on fiction.

(What isn't fiction? I like questions about public policy rather than clown questions about campaign events or gaffes or other nonsense. Also, I'm pro-honesty, at least within reason; I don't think candidates should outright lie about things, and I favor attempts to discourage that sort of thing).

At any rate: because I don't expect debates to offer a thoughtful discussion of The Issues which will allow voters to make rational choices based on the candidates' positions, which are revealed only thanks to clever questions by moderators, I have no problems with a candidate who ducks a question he or she doesn't want to answer. For the most part, I think what's valuable about the debates has to do with the candidates talking about whatever it is they want to talk about; indeed, I think what's valuable about the campaign is having the candidates talk about what they want to talk about. Yes, I'd like to nudge them a bit towards public policy and away from, oh, whether the other candidate was really a Soviet operative (an actual debate topic in 1992), and so I'd like decent questions. But beyond that -- hey, it's a skill to answer the question you want rather than the question you're asked; it's a skill to avoid talking about what you don't want to talk about without overly insulting your audience. It's fine if politicians demonstrate that skill during the debates.


  1. One other motivation I would add is that a lot journalists and others seem to think that debates should resemble a court room, or how court rooms are portrayed in TV and movies, with the moderator as a prosecutor demanding an answer, the politicians as the two star witnesses while the jurors, that is the voters, watch and then render a verdict. Of course this is absurd, most stuff you see on TV and in movies isn't how courts really work. For example, trials are rather rare in our criminal justice system, the vast majority of cases are settled with a plea bargain or dismissed. But the core problem is that there is no one to enforce rules in a debate like how a judge enforces rules in a courtroom. First of all, if you lie under oath you can go to jail, but its not a crime to announce "by far the vast majority of the tax cuts go to the bottom." Secondly, a judge can demand an answer from a witness who is evading a direct question, that is pivoting away from something like if they saw the defendant on the night of the fourteenth. A judge can quite literally find you in contempt and put you in jail for pivoting too much. No, Bob Schieffer can't do that. Finally, I'd point out that debates are voluntary events that can only happen if both campaigns agree to them. Thus any rules designed to put politicians "on the spot" will be vetoed by the campaigns, after all why on earth would the campaigns agree to rules that limit their ability to communicate with the voters in the way they want to?

    1. As a college debater, we all fantasied about those rounds where you would construct this logical argument that the opponent could not beat, and, in fact, would unknowingly strengthen via their answers to cross examination question. Then, so goes the fantasy, in the final rebuttal speech we'd link all the points together into a complete narrative that would contain the "a-ha" moment would it would all crystallize for the opponent, judges, and spectators alike.

      It never happened that way in those rounds and it certainly never happens that way in political debates.

      Even the few "I paid for this microphone" moments take on great weight later, in the retelling, then they have at the time.

  2. This may shed some light on the above... The real truth about the debates etc...

  3. Is it a specifically "goo-goo idea of debates" or simply a commonly understood definition of what the terms debate and moderator usually denote and connote? You're probably canny in your understanding of what function contemporary American presidential debates actually serve and what a canny observer should expect. But it still seems wrong to criticize others for, more or less, judging something billed as a "debate," concerning "issues," raised by a "moderator" on whether it actually lives up to what a straight comprehension of those terms would entail...

    If everyone in the know and behind the campaigns doesn't actually want a normal debate, why don't they bill these things as something else? Hmmm, well, maybe it's because the actual function of these presidential "debates" significantly rely on the ordinary citizen misperceiving them as an actual debate?

  4. It seems like you're arguing that we shouldn't expect the candidates to deal with the issues because...candidates refuse to deal with the issues! But doesn't that beg the question a bit? If people object to candidates ducking questions, you need to offer them more than the fact that candidates duck questions as a reason to accept the practice.

    You also seem to write off the possibility of reform, instead suggesting that Americans adjust their expectations down to the level of the status quo, without giving us additional reasons to accept either proposition.

    Lastly, in apparent opposition to your acceptance of business as usual, you support questions about policy over clown questions and honesty 'within reason.'

    But what's the point of objecting to clown questions if you don't also object to clown answers?

    And do you advocate honesty within reason because it's right to advocate honesty within reason, or only because it's a standard that is not confounded by the status quo?

    If you do it because it's an objectively defensible standard, how can you dismiss people who complain about question ducking based on similarly defensible criteria?

    If you do it because it's a standard that's compatible with the status quo, what happens if the status quo changes? If debates become bully pulpits for calculated deception (more accurately reflecting the national political conversation) should we surrender even this minimal standard as a pragmatic adjustment to the world of Realpolitik?

    It seems to me that if we can adjust the structure of the debate to provide incentives for answering questions and disincentives for ducking them, it is an exercise worth pursuing. The American people deserve the opportunity to make an informed choice in November, and to the extent we allow politicians to duck questions in the pursuit of political power, we work against that end.

  5. I don't see what the "it's a skill" business has to do with anything. It's also a skill to be able to kill someone by throwing a dagger, but I'd rather our presidential debates didn't involve that.

  6. FWIW, I'm not willing to say the guy at Harvard is trying to "eradicate the scourge."
    Another, very reasonable, interpretation of the situation is that he realized that his reaction to the pivots was not the same as other people's reaction. And, as an academic psychologist, he was interested in figuring out why that is.
    Seems like a perfectly good way to go about conducting social science to me. (Though I'm less sure about his methods, his way about coming up with a topic is perfectly fine. I've done many projects that start with "why does this thing that pisses me off happen?")


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