The latest in my series of highly biased, non-peer reviewed, low-impact, original research…
I have been consistently frustrated with the mainstream media’s surprise at Hillary Clinton’s falling polls and the success of Bernie Sanders. What’s more frustrating is the common consensus that this is a result of GOP attacks with respect to her emails and the attack on the Benghazi consulate. When pundits discuss her poor perception of trust and likeability, phony comedy routines or anecdotes about Clinton’s mother are suggested as good strategy. For me, all this babble misses the mark by a wide margin. I think it’s a simple matter of answering straightforward questions.
I wanted to study how eager candidates have been to answer an interview question. By quickly and directly answering questions, the audience perceives that the candidate is comfortable being asked anything and has nothing to hide. By focusing on the direct question, the candidate surrenders the choice of topic to the journalist, the representative of the people. I believe that the perceptions of candor and honesty can be more precisely analyzed and even corrected when quantified in this way.
The problem is that objectively determining whether or not a candidate has answered a question is problematic. Who gets to decide that someone did or did not answer the question? How do we distinguish style from substance? Often, questions must be challenged on their premise, and doing so is routine, smart politics as well as logic.
On the other hand, “yes or no” questions are much more simple. Objectively, their answers can only be categorized as “yes”, “no”, or “didn’t answer”. The answer is, by definition, not reliant on an accurate premise. What follows is my analysis of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton’s approach to yes or no questions in an interview setting.
If my impression is correct that Bernie Sanders demonstrates greater candor and honesty than Hillary Clinton by directly answering questions, it should be clear that he answers a greater percentage of yes/no questions than Clinton, and takes less time to do so. Maybe I’m wrong. If this is a misperception of Clinton, merely having to do with her gender, political history, etc, the data should show that she answers questions at reasonably the same rate as Bernie.
I collected the top 5 interviews on YouTube from the search “Bernie Sanders Interview” and “Hillary Clinton Interview” respectively. Fortunately, these interviews were comparable in length, content, and both searches even included two interviews from the same journalists, Andrea Mitchell and John Dickerson.
I analyzed only the “yes or no” questions from the interviewers and categorized the candidate’s respective answer into “answered yes/no” or “didn’t answer”. I also recorded the number of seconds it took to get to an answer, (in the first case) or the number of seconds spent talking without giving an answer. (in the second case) I did not record the amount of time talking after giving an answer. This was because, in an interview format, yes/no questions are meant to be open-ended opportunities for elaboration. Otherwise, it would be a very short interview. I don’t think that an explanation of a yes/no answer after the fact detracts from the candidate’s candor, but long explanations before giving an answer do so detract.
For the most part, a “yes” or “no” is required to constitute an answer, but in a few clear cases, answers such as “I agree with that” or “I wouldn’t do that” constituted a clear and direct answer to the question. I watched the interviews on a single pass, and I determined whether or not a question was a yes or no question before analyzing the answer.
I initially included a third category, which was “refused to answer”, because I consider this a non-answer, but still directly addressing the question. However, it only occurred twice with each candidate, and did not require much time to do so. Often this refusal to answer was implicit rather than explicit, so difficult to categorize. I included all these answers in the “non-answer” category for the sake of simplicity.
The clock starts when the candidate starts speaking and ends when the candidate begins the yes/no answer. It was common for an answer to be given before the interviewer was done with the question, in which case, zero seconds is recorded.
The raw data is at the bottom of this page, including a synopsis of the question being asked. The interviews as well as their respective questions are in chronological order so you can look for evolution in the candidate’s style. I encourage you too look it over if you are interested.
Results and Discussion:
I had no idea that the data would be so clear. Bernie Sanders appears consistently desperate to answer the interviewer’s question. Hillary Clinton appears allergic to a straight answer.
In a more holistic, subjective analysis of the questions’ content, I tried to categorize the non-answers into types of question, but found it very difficult to parse. However, there were obvious trends in the types of questions that were not answered. The questions that Bernie Sanders did not answer were almost entirely composed of questions about political speculation or attempts to get him to attack Hillary Clinton. There were only 1-2 questions about policy about which Sanders did not give a straight answer.
For Clinton, on the other hand, about half of her non-answers were about policy. About 40% of the non-answers were concerning her negative perception or controversy concerning her email or the Clinton Foundation. Sanders wasn’t asked as many questions about comparable controversies concerning him, but he answered all of them. The idea that Clinton’s non-answers were merely a result of the controversy surrounding her political standing are not supported by these data.
Above are histograms describing the time required to get to an answer or non-answer. I was surprised to see that the time taken for non-answers was roughly the same for both candidates. Of course, Sanders did not give that many non-answers to analyze. Watching the interviews, I had the perception that Clinton was droning on for a long time without answering, suggesting that the mere quantity of time spent without answering gives this impression. When a candidate answers the question and then elaborates, I think the audience is more relaxed and listening to the explanation. When the candidate goes on and on without answering, there is a tension around whether or not the candidate will come around to the answer we all want to hear. Perhaps this is just me.
When it comes to answers, both candidates tended to give their answer right away before elaborating. Clinton gave long explanations before answering with slightly greater frequency then Sanders, but it was still rare. This is accentuated by the fact that Sanders often answered the question before the interviewer was finished asking the question.
Without clear trends in question content driving the candidate’s candor discrepancy, it appears that Clinton simply doesn’t feel the need to answer direct questions to the degree that Sanders does. I believe that this is a product of old school politics of the 1990’s. When media became fast paced 20 years ago, campaigns became concerned with winning the news cycle and producing sound bites. Staying on message meant answering the questions you wanted to answer the way you wanted to answer them.
Now that online media and social networks have dominated our communication, campaigns aren’t limited to sound bites. Free media is unlimited. Furthermore, people used to the constant exposure of social media expect their candidates to be more exposed than ever. The standards by which we judge exposure and candor have shifted, especially among Millennials. Perhaps that accounts for the large age discrepancy in the polls. We are not as likely to forgive candidates like Clinton who feed us bullshit answers. Unfortunately, we have not yet developed the vocabulary to describe this evolution. Hopefully this research can shed a bit more precision on a previously described intuition concerning political perceptions.