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Great Debate: Will Politicians Answer the Question?

American political campaigners are primed to deliver talking points regardless of the question they’ve actually been asked. Two professors offer tips for more on-target debates going forward.

During the Republican primary debate in Arizona a couple of weeks ago, CNN moderator John King asked one of those slightly askew questions that’s designed to poke through the candidates’ finely tuned allegiance to their talking points. What, King asked the would-be U.S. presidents, is the biggest misconception the public has about you?

Here is where Mitt Romney went with that one: “We’ve got to restore America’s promise in this country, where people know that with hard work and education that they’re going to be secure and prosperous and that their kids will have a brighter future than they’ve had.”

And then he kept right on going, hitting his campaign’s high notes of more jobs, less debt, and smaller government. King finally interrupted Romney’s stump speech with a reminder: Ahem, a misconception the public has about you?

“You know,” Romney shot back, “you get to ask the questions you want, I get to give the answers I want.”

“I was sort of struck by the candidness of it,” recalled Todd Rogers, an assistant professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. (Although, perhaps Romney was channeling Henry Kissinger, who routinely opened press conferences asking, “Does anyone have any questions for my answers?”)

Normally candidates don’t admit that they’re doing this: dodging questions, ushering the discussion to where they want it to go, participating in a kind of shadow debate not with the moderator’s prompts, but with the ones they prepared to answer ahead of time with a political consultant.

The trick is supposed to involve some sleight of hand (or tongue). And frequently listeners are duped by it. Rogers and Harvard Business School associate professor Michael Norton have studied the tactic — the political dodge — with some discouraging findings about how often we fail to pick up on the trick. Their research, though, also points to some ideas for how to design better — more dodge-proof? — debates.

THE IDEA LOBBYMiller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

Miller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

“Watching political debates is an exasperating experience,” Rogers said. And he and Norton were thinking this long before this Republic primary season’s marathon debate schedule. They decided to isolate and study the most egregious form of dodge: the answer that has absolutely nothing to do with the question at hand.

You’ve seen this before: John King asks a question about, say, immigration reform, and the next think you know we’re hearing about repealing Obamacare. Rick Perry was particularly inartful at this. The less egregious dodges at least manage to stay on topic — or to shift the discussion to something seemingly related to it.

“We’re trying to understand under what conditions do people get away with this, since it appears to happen so frequently,” Rogers said. “And then finally, how can we knock it out? How can we prevent people from getting away with this?”

The researchers have run a series of studies presenting subjects with different kinds of dodges, and different prompts for how to evaluate them. We’re most tricked, they’ve found, by attempts to answer a similar question to the one that was asked. Speakers who answer a similar question well are also evaluated by listeners more positively than speakers who fumble while trying to answer the question that was actually asked of them (again, think of Rick Perry).

We’re also much more likely to be fooled by all of this if we’re not on the lookout for verbal jujitsu ahead of time. Rogers and Norton have found, however, that people are much better at identifying dodges when they’re reminded to keep an eye out for them.

“When you give them the explicit goal of identifying whether this person is answering the question or not, people are great at it,” Rogers said. “They’re fantastic at it. But it turns out that’s not what they’re doing when they listen to these debates.”

Listeners shouldn’t beat ourselves up, though. Humans have limited attention. And when most of us watch debates, we’re directing that limited attention not at dodge detection, but at the character and appeal of the candidates.

“What they’re saying is just the conduit, the vehicle for conveying that more basic, fundamental information,” Rogers said.

As a practical matter, Rogers and Norton have discovered that it’s possible to heighten listeners’ awareness of dodges by posting the text of the question on the screen while candidates are supposed to be answering it. Many media outlets during this election cycle have tried out this strategy. It’s amusing to envision the next frontier: What if the question itself were projected onto a massive on-stage screen hovering over the candidates?

This election season, FOX has also partnered with Twitter on a kind of dodge-o-meter, inviting viewers to tag their commentary during debates with either #dodge or #answer. Still, Rogers suspects technology isn’t the entire answer.

“The Twitter thing is nice,” he said. “But in the end, it’s a human trying to deceive other humans.”

And for this reason, we may also want to demand more of the moderators policing political debates. John King’s response to Romney’s rebuke in Arizona – “I get to give the answers I want!” — was almost as revealing.

“Fair enough,” King conceded.

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