The fly in the ointment of Mike Pence's debate performance

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Vice presidential debate moderator Susan Page speaks to CNN's John Berman about her experience as a moderator between Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), as both candidates debated key issues surrounding the 2020 US election.

Posted: Oct 8, 2020 11:20 PM
Updated: Oct 8, 2020 11:21 PM

As messaging and communication coaches, we constantly receive requests from clients not to make them sound like politicians. We totally agree.

The propensity of politicians to ignore a direct question infuriates people. Most of us, however, acknowledge that politicians and direct answers can be distant strangers. Voters have come to expect that dodging a question -- or "pivoting," as it's known in the industry -- is done with a little style, a little finesse.

Wednesday night, Vice President Mike Pence's world was a finesse-free zone where style points were hard to come by. After persistently bobbing and weaving in response to moderator Susan Page's questions on issues such as whether President Donald Trump would commit to a peaceful transition of power, even the fly that took up residence on Pence's head got fed up and flew off.

Our guidance to clients is to answer questions directly as often as possible. This is what generates credibility and trust. Conversely, gratuitous evasion prompts suspicion and skepticism. On numerous occasions, Pence made not even the slightest effort to acknowledge the topic of the question, frequently ignoring the subject altogether, like he did when he bizarrely contorted a question about abortion into an answer about the killing of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani.

While this clumsy attempt to control the conversation might have allowed Pence to get in some extra shots on his preferred issues, studies tell us that he might have sacrificed a precious commodity that, according to recent polling, his ticket is in desperate need of: trustworthiness.

Todd Rogers, a behavioral scientist at the Harvard Kennedy School, analyzed the 2004 George W. Bush-John Kerry debate to better understand when question dodging works and when it merely enrages the audience. As Rogers has explained in interviews, he found that when viewers heard the candidate answer a question directly, they perceived him as likable, honest and trustworthy. When the candidate pivoted a little bit but stayed on topic, viewers still saw him favorably. But when the candidate dodged the question entirely, "everyone noticed and they thought he was a jerk."

Rogers concluded that, "People are capable of detecting dodges -- but only if they are very egregious. They don't appear to be capable of detecting subtle dodges."

Wednesday night, Mike Pence's evasions were anything but subtle.

Sen. Kamala Harris, on the other hand, demonstrated a masterful use of the pivot when asked about the importance of both Joe Biden and President Donald Trump's transparency (or lack thereof) on the state of their health. Harris began on the topic of health before pivoting to an attack that was likely high on the Democrat's wish list: "Joe Biden has been so incredibly transparent. And certainly by contrast that the President has not, both in terms of health records, but also let's look at taxes. We now know... that Donald Trump paid $750 in taxes."

Harris made a valiant effort on another pivot when asked if a Biden administration would seek to expand the Supreme Court. She tried to wiggle off that hook by steering her answer to how the Trump administration has packed lower courts with incompetent judges.

Of his appointments to the Court of Appeals, not one has been Black, Harris argued. Pence pounced on the non-answer, challenging her several times to answer the question of packing the Supreme Court. In doing so, he scored what could arguably be some of his only solid points of the night.

So, did Harris and Pence achieve what they set out to do? In Harris's case, she needed to be the Philippe Petit of politics, balancing the high wire act of attacking the Trump-Pence record but not coming across as too aggressive given the unfair stereotypes about her gender and race. She managed to pull it off by emulating her running mate's bright demeanor on the debate stage. Her frequent smile turned out to be an ideal counterbalance to her more assertive moments.

With a running mate unable to return to the campaign trail, a ticket that is down in the polls by double digits, and a lack of trust among voters to manage the most important issues, the task for Mike Pence was more daunting. In his one and only debate opportunity, he needed to steady a ship that this week seems to be taking on water, and the burden of that showed on his face. As CNN Senior Political Commentator David Axelrod noted on Twitter, Pence looked like he had been called to the principal's office.

Ironically, restoring a sense of stability is exactly what some felt Joe Biden did in 2012 after a surprisingly subpar showing by President Barack Obama in his first debate against Mitt Romney. But Pence's evasive performance likely failed to inject the GOP ticket with what it urgently needs most: trust, credibility and a sense of honesty.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 343505

Reported Deaths: 7543
CountyCasesDeaths
Hinds23932444
DeSoto23229283
Harrison20527329
Rankin15411291
Jackson15232252
Madison10959227
Lee10719179
Jones9047169
Forrest8723159
Lauderdale7884244
Lowndes7054151
Lamar702989
Lafayette6548124
Washington5595139
Pearl River5196152
Bolivar4954134
Oktibbeha494398
Panola4771112
Warren4728128
Marshall4701106
Pontotoc447773
Union433279
Monroe4330137
Neshoba4281181
Hancock428088
Lincoln4176116
Pike3667113
Leflore3627125
Tate353388
Alcorn350974
Sunflower347694
Scott341176
Adams340988
Yazoo339376
Copiah324968
Simpson322891
Itawamba314680
Coahoma314085
Tippah306568
Prentiss298863
Covington293484
Leake285475
Marion284181
Wayne277543
George272251
Grenada269488
Newton262364
Tishomingo239770
Winston236784
Jasper230648
Stone229637
Attala226373
Chickasaw219060
Holmes200174
Clay197654
Clarke186880
Tallahatchie183742
Calhoun181332
Smith179235
Yalobusha171540
Walthall145748
Lawrence142826
Greene140134
Amite137543
Noxubee135235
Perry133538
Montgomery133044
Carroll126431
Webster121232
Jefferson Davis116734
Tunica114227
Benton106725
Claiborne105331
Kemper102429
Humphreys100133
Franklin87923
Quitman84719
Choctaw82619
Wilkinson78032
Jefferson71328
Sharkey51618
Issaquena1736
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 587405

Reported Deaths: 11536
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson853851591
Mobile48932864
Madison37517533
Shelby27280257
Tuscaloosa27171465
Montgomery26172627
Baldwin25399329
Lee17224181
Calhoun15401334
Morgan15170291
Etowah14954370
Marshall13116235
Houston12077293
Elmore10915219
St. Clair10763252
Limestone10725158
Cullman10546205
Lauderdale10255254
DeKalb9508192
Talladega8949188
Walker7793288
Autauga7563114
Jackson7400117
Blount7362139
Colbert6703142
Coffee6365132
Dale5650117
Russell480243
Chilton4771117
Covington4749125
Franklin458181
Tallapoosa4519156
Escambia441383
Chambers3949125
Dallas3743163
Clarke371263
Marion3463107
Pike332579
Lawrence3263100
Winston298773
Bibb290465
Geneva283983
Marengo262467
Barbour250961
Pickens245562
Butler240872
Hale235578
Fayette227065
Henry213945
Monroe202141
Randolph201144
Cherokee199248
Washington185239
Macon170552
Crenshaw168358
Clay166259
Cleburne161345
Lamar151038
Lowndes145455
Wilcox132331
Bullock126542
Conecuh121332
Coosa118329
Perry110528
Sumter110333
Greene99137
Choctaw64425
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The heat wave that controlled our area over the past several days is now behind us. The forecast for the next week looks a bit cooler & less humid.
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