At their best, presidential and vice presidential debates equip voters with a stark choice between competing policies and ideologies. Unfortunately, candidates and campaigns are often adept at avoiding tough questions. As President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney prepare for their second prime time debate, we examine the dark art of debate dodges and spins, and explore new approaches for keeping candidates on topic.
Spot The Spin
Voters simply want more answers from their political leaders than most are willing to give. According to Harvard professor Todd Rogers, this is where the dodge comes in handy. If a politician can eloquently dodge a question, listeners are less likely to notice that he or she is avoiding the question. Even worse, we might not even remember the original question that was asked.
In the following audio clip, 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley asks presidential candidate Mitt Romney, “Does the government have a responsibility to provide health care to the 50 million Americans who don't have it today?" Listen and decide if you think Romney answers Pelley’s question:
In the most successful dodges, Rogers says the speaker will include a transition between the question that was asked to the question he or she intends to answer. This makes it more difficult for the listener to make the connection between the question and answer.
In the next audio clip, Vice President Joe Biden answers vice presidential debate moderator Martha Raddatz’s question about the September attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya. How does Biden address Raddatz’s question -- without actually answering it?
In some cases, language can expose a candidate's attempt to avoid a question. According to professor Rogers, initial statements like, "That's an important question. I'm glad you asked it," can be signals that a dodge is probably underway.
Notice in the following sound bite, taken from a July town hall meeting in Cincinnati, Ohio, how President Obama employs this very language. After listening to the clip, ask yourself if you think anyone in the audience would remember the original question that Obama is responding to.
Naming (and maybe Shaming) Spin
During the debates, moderators can be the force that keeps candidates from avoiding tough questions. Yet, as Rogers points out, this is no easy task. If moderators go after candidates too aggressively, viewers might see their forcefulness as unfair or rude.
BBC Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman famously asked Michael Howard, former British home secretary, the same question 12 times in an effort to get a straight answer. Listen to the audio and notice how Paxman’s questioning makes the listener feel uncomfortable.
New technology can show exactly which rhetorical devices move voters. Professor Philip Resnik and his collaborators tested his new real-time polling app, React Labs, during the last presidential and vice presidential debates.
While watching the debate, participants will react to candidates’ statements by pressing either “agree,” “disagree,” “dodge” or “spin.” About 30 users pressed “dodge” when Rep. Paul Ryan answered Raddatz’s question about the specifics of the Romney-Ryan tax plan. Listen to the clip and note your reaction.
Moment-to-moment reactions can provide insight into how political language actively manipulates voters.
A group of self-identified Democratic students used the React Labs app while watching Mitt Romney’s nomination acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla. There was a spike in agreement among Hispanic users when Romney described the U.S. as a nation of immigrants. However, Resnik pointed out that overall the group did not view Romney, or even his immigration policies, favorably.
Watch Romney speak about the American dream, starting at 3:27 minutes.
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