Look who’s talking

Hitting Hard or Hardly Hitting? Questioning in the 2016 Primary Debates

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Will you say anything to get elected? That question was posed to Hillary Clinton in the first Democratic debate of the 2016 race last week. It’s a tough question and one meant to put the former First Lady on the defensive. But it wasn’t a barbed challenge from a rival candidate in a heated moment of fierce debate. It was a question from Anderson Cooper, the moderator, and it was the first question of the night.

Voters today are accustomed to seeing candidates challenged and barraged as TV cameras or personal phones capture every moment. We wait with bated breath for the next gaffe, misstep, or Daily Show highlight. When Anderson Cooper opens the debate with challenging and direct questions to each candidate, his heart is in the right place. We want greater transparency and accountability in our candidates. Those running for office should be subject to the highest scrutiny. No past decision or personal detail is off the table.

But campaigns have adjusted to this scrutiny as well. Questions of principles, loyalty, and consistency are calmly met with well-rehearsed deflections. Candidates are more likely to pull off a neatly spun sidestep than they are to squirm and stutter under the microscope. In the blink of an eye, political expediency and pandering becomes having a range of views and learning from new information and experiences. In last week’s debate, the candidates rarely seemed as polished and prepared as when they were answering the most accusatory and sensitive questions.

The Democratic debate was not unique in opening with questions that confronted candidates one by one. FOX took the same approach in its Republican debate. The moderating approach stuck out less in that debate, where candidates were more eager to point fingers at each other and to speak out in stronger language. The subject of most of the post-debate buzz was of course GOP frontrunner Donald Trump, whose campaign strategy centers on making statements that seem off the cuff rather than calculated. It is little surprise that in comparison the Democratic debate struck many viewers as boring and uneventful.

In an age where campaigns are meticulously managed and candidates are coached through tested, PR-ready answers, direct interrogation falls flat. The questions that reveal the true character and political vision of the candidates are not questions that challenge them so much as questions that are challenging.

While candidates are on a bright stage with microphones and cameras rolling, they’re also answering questions about their beliefs, their decisions, and themselves. And people are more likely to open up about these topics when they feel listened to, respected, and comfortable. After all, if we know anything about a presidential race in the 21st century, it’s that attacks will fly and plenty of mud will be slung. A more revealing and personal debate might have taken place with a moderator more focused on fostering open dialogue.

In market research, we spend a lot of time asking questions. And we spend a lot of time thinking about asking questions. Difficult questions are not bad questions. They are often the most necessary and fruitful that you can ask. But we also know that good answers come from respondents who are comfortable, at ease, and encouraged to be thoughtful. It’s not a matter of choosing questions that are easy or tough. It’s a matter of how and when to use the many different types of queries to get the most honest and relevant answers.


by Calen Cole, Senior Analyst


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