Brett O'Donnell is a debate consultant who trains Republican candidates. He has worked with George W. Bush and John McCain, and for a short time earlier this year, he helped prep Mitt Romney.
O'Donnell is an expert on "the pivot."
If you have watched a debate, you have watched a pivot. "The pivot is a way of taking a question that might be on a specific subject, and moving to answer it on your own terms," O'Donnell says.
Take, as just one small example, a moment from the 2004 debate between President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry.
You could, by the way, just as easily use an example from Kerry — both Bush and Kerry used pivots roughly the same amount of the time.
In this case, the moderator, Bob Schieffer of CBS News, asked President Bush about job loss. What, Schieffer wondered, would Bush say to someone who has lost his job? Bush began by promising to "continue to grow our economy" and then, subtly, changed course. Suddenly, Bush was talking about education, specifically his signature No Child Left Behind legislation. "I went to Washington to solve problems," he explained. "And I saw a problem in the public education system."
In two or three sentences, Bush had moved from a question about lack of jobs to an answer about education and a promise fulfilled. That is the power of the pivot. Which is why, in the age of debate coaches like O'Donnell, candidates in both parties use them all the time — "frequently," O'Donnell says, "better than 60 or 70 percent of the time, I would say."
The question is, how good are viewers at identifying these "pivots" — or, in the language of my people (journalists who ask questions), "dodges"?
How good are you?
There's a man at Harvard who actually has an answer to that question.
The Pivot And The Brain
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.
To figure it out, he decided to do a study that tried to replicate what typical viewers see when they watch a debate.
He recorded a moderator asking candidates a series of questions.
In the first question, the moderator asked the candidates about health care in America, and the politician answered with a health care answer — a long disquisition on why Americans could not afford the care they needed.
Rogers then took that answer and used it as a response to a totally different moderator question, this one about the problem of illegal drug use. So one set of people saw a candidate answering a health care question with a health care answer, while another group saw an illegal-drug use question answered with a health care answer. Essentially, the second group saw a relatively subtle pivot, from drug use question to health care answer.
Finally, he had a third group view the moderator asking a question about terrorism, which was answered again with the exact same health care answer — a much more blatant shift.
At the end of this he asked the different groups two things:
Can you remember what question the person was asked?
How honest, likable and trustworthy is this person?
'Exploiting Our Cognitive Limitation'
What he found was that when a politician answered the health care question with a health care answer, viewers could recall the question and thought the candidate was likable, honest and trustworthy.
When the politician pivoted a little bit and answered the illegal drug question with a health care answer, viewers could not recall the question — but they didn't penalize the politician at all. "Listeners thought he was just as honest, trustworthy and likable as the guy who actually answered the question," Rogers says.
It was only when the politician answered the terrorism question with a health care answer that people could actually tell. "Everyone noticed, and they thought he was a jerk," Rogers says.
This led Rogers to the conclusion that people are capable of detecting dodges — but only if they're egregious. They don't seem capable of detecting subtle evasions.
Rogers believes this is because we have limited attention, and most of the time when we're watching debates, we spend that attention on social evaluation — Do we like this person? Do we trust this person? — and only generally monitor content.
It's only when the speaker is wildly inconsistent that some deep mental wire is tripped. "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," Rogers says.
This, Rogers believes, is why politicians can get away with dodging questions as much as 70 percent of the time.
"Politicians," he says, "are exploiting our cognitive limitation without punishment."
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
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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