The motivation behind this question is the US Vice Presidential debate, where Kamala Harris dodged Mike Pence's question:

Are you and Joe Biden going to pack the court if Amy Coney Barrett is confirmed? Are you going to pack the court?

She dodged this question in a fairly obvious way. I understand that it's too risky to outright say either "yes" or "no". But she didn't even respond to the effect of "it's undecided" (or even even a Trump-esque "we are looking at all possible options").

I get the feeling that not admitting to uncertainty on one's political stance is part of a political strategy.

Question: Why dodge a question about your party's position (e.g. Kamala Harris on "packing the court" during VP debate) instead of saying it's undecided?

I ask this in the context of US politics; it may be different in other political contexts.

  • 5
    Debate moderators for presidential level debates sometimes like to ask questions along the lines of "When did you stop abusing your children?" There is no acceptable answer to such questions. The best thing to do with such questions is to answer a very different question. Oct 9, 2020 at 3:57
  • 3
    Isn't Pence's question meaningless, given that Presidents can't change the size of the Supreme Court (only Congress can do that), and Vice Presidents can't really do anything except cast tie-breaking votes in the Senate? So how is not answering such a question "dodging"?
    – jamesqf
    Oct 9, 2020 at 4:08
  • 2
    @Giter - Exactly. The Biden-Harris ticket to success includes having all elements (progressive to centrist) elements of the Democratic Party come out in numbers, and having a good portion of independent and perhaps even some Republican voters vote for them. Answering "yes" would please the progressives but could turn off the centrists, independents, and Republican voters they are trying to attract. Answering "no" would turn off the progressive elements. Answering "it's undecided" could turn off everyone. When any answer is a losing answer, it's best to talk about something else. Oct 9, 2020 at 4:10
  • 3
    @JonathanReez - We still are a sexist society. An answer such as that from a female would have come off to some as typical female passive-aggressiveness and would cause them to vote Trump-Pence. There was no acceptable answer to that question. Oct 9, 2020 at 4:37
  • 2
    @JonathanReez Historic Republican obstruction blocked many dozens of judges from being confirmed under Obama and the current Republican senate is breaking records on approving judges, seats left empty due to R obstruction. Returning back to normal every time Republicans take more than their share leaves us in a state where Republicans perpetually have more than their fair share because their advantage was never removed and Democrats are never given an equal advantage to even the score. So I disagree that not appointing Barrett would be all that's needed for Democrats to not pack the courts.
    – Quantic
    Oct 9, 2020 at 22:19

6 Answers 6


First off, Mike Pence was not the moderator. Rule number one in a political debate is not to let ones opponent take the offensive, and even more importantly, to not let ones opponent take on the role of the moderator. (Rule number two is to try to take the offensive, in a non offensive way, and to try to take on the role of the moderator.)

Any answer to Pence's question would have been perceived by some as a reason to not vote, or even worse, to vote for the Trump-Pence ticket rather than the Biden-Harris ticket. So you don't answer that question. Period. All politicians of any merit have learned to try to ask opponents loaded questions during political debates. On the other hand, all politicians of any merit have learned to deflect loaded questions.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – JJJ
    Oct 10, 2020 at 18:43
  • This could use some elaboration, e.g. why would a "it's not yet decided" answer be perceived as a reason not to vote and/or to vote for Trump/Pence?
    – Allure
    Oct 12, 2020 at 2:21
  • 3
    @Allure - Read the long, long set of comments that have been moved to chat. The TLDR: people sometimes perceive wishy-washiness as the worst of all possible options. Oct 12, 2020 at 2:38
  • Maybe edit into the answer?
    – Allure
    Oct 12, 2020 at 2:42
  • @Allure Those on the right will see it as admitting they are going to, or at least considering it, those on the left may see it as them not committing to responding to the GOP and letting them get away with packing the court by taking both Scalia and RBG's seats.
    – Andrew
    Oct 12, 2020 at 3:18

It is (sadly) one of the more prevalent tactics in politics to provide others as few attack angles on you as possible, which manifests itself in a number of patterns, one of which is displayed here: Dodging questions.

Saying that you are undecided might be truthful or not, but it would offer both sides of the issue plenty of attack angles on you.
Therefore it is more politically opportune to simply dodge the question, as both Harris and Biden are doing constantly on that issue.

Another popular tactic that can be observed often is to answer a question with regard to past remarks or deeds with "I don't recall saying/doing XYZ", which falls into the same pattern of offering no attack angle, as it implies a negative without the risk of being caught in a blatant lie when it later turns out that you indeed said/did XYZ.

It would be easy to blame those things on politicians alone, but it is just as equally the fault of partisan or sensationalist media who are willing to twist, distort and even edit statements of politicians just to get an attack angle on them. Politicians adapting to it by only making as vague statements as possible (or no statements at all) is hardly surprising.

  • 3
    But dodging the question does offer an attack angle: it makes people wonder “why would she dodge that question”, and can lead proponents of either answer to assume “she's against me and knows it and therefore hides her stance from me”. Oct 9, 2020 at 16:12
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    @leftaroundabout it's better to leave your mouth closed and have people suspect you're a fool than open it and remove all doubt. Oct 9, 2020 at 22:10
  • @leftaroundabout Unfortunately, it takes additional effort on the audience's part to do think those things. If you're just taking it in, then you won't notice things like that.
    – DKNguyen
    Oct 9, 2020 at 23:29
  • 1
    To add one more responsible party: As former Congressman Barney Frank once said, "The voters are no picnic either."
    – Nate
    Oct 10, 2020 at 14:40
  • @SandyChapman A closed mouth gathers no feet. Oct 11, 2020 at 2:02

Saying you have not yet decided looks bad for two reasons:

  1. It looks weak and indecisive.

  2. It leaves you open to attack from both sides. People who oppose X can be induced to vote against you with the fear that you might do X, while people who support X can be induced to vote against you with the fear that you won't do X.

In short, voters want to know what they are voting for.


To dodge a question metaphorically asserts a question like a balanced and well-aimed projectile, a question sure to "hit the mark" unless it were dodged. To the contrary, Pence's simplistic "yes or no?" question was neither balanced nor well aimed, and veers sideways, making dodging unnecessary.

In 10/2020, asking "Are you going to pack the court?" begs the question, as it erroneously implies the court is not in fact already packed. Yet the court has been packed. So it cannot be a binary question, since there are absolutely no fewer than three possible answers:

  1. Do nothing and leave the court packed with conservatives.
  2. Re-balance the court by adding enough seats to reach an approximately equal parity of conservatives and liberals. In effect "unpacking" it.
  3. Pack the court by adding sufficient liberal seats to nullify the conservatives.

Plus other contingencies that don't require direct action. For example, if more of the court were to fall ill, retire, or die, (perhaps due to some regrettable COVID super-spreader event), then adding seats might not be necessary.

  • 5
    ‘Court packing’ is know commonly to mean adding additional Justices beyond the existing nine. The court is not ‘packed’ currently. Oct 11, 2020 at 19:29
  • 1
    @MatthewFisher Found "The number of Justices on the Supreme Court changed six times before settling at the present total of nine in 1869." on supremecourt.gov/about/institution.aspx . The definition of "packed" depends on what time span is chosen and how one chooses to label changes to the court. Oct 12, 2020 at 2:21
  • 3
    Yes, the number is not fixed by the constitution. 1869 was awhile ago however. No one suggested that filling a vacancy was ‘packing’ until the last few weeks. There is an effort to blur normal appointments with adding additional members for political advantage. The current appointment is not ‘packing’ in the common parlance Oct 12, 2020 at 2:26
  • @MatthewFisher, Language expands: it's seldom useful to idolize a common usage, nor to confuse refocusing with blurring. The verb pack refers to the act of filling a container. The container's size or contents are immaterial. But the key idea specific to all usages of court packing is to arrive at a dubious partisan imbalance by various procedural schemes. It makes little difference whether a court is packed with partisans via expansion, (as FDR contemplated), or obstruction, (as achieved by the recent partisan Senate), the intent, morality, and effects are the same.
    – agc
    Oct 13, 2020 at 16:03
  • No. The OP specifically asked about 'packing the court' in the current political climate. The only meaning of that phrase is 'adding additional justices for partisan advantage '. Filling vacancies is not 'packing the court' Oct 13, 2020 at 16:08

There is a big difference between dodging the question and saying it's undecided. The latter means exactly what it says, and would anger the many Democrats who would want to pack the court. Because for those Democrats, it should not be an "undecided" matter. Thus, there is a risk to lose the votes of those who think that Biden/Harris should already have decided (to pack the court). Dodging the question can be interpreted many different ways, and provides a reason to vote even for those who want to pack the court. They can just skip the matter and vote based on other factors.


Because it's a question for which democrats can not under any circumstance win with any possible answer. In dodging the question they effectively left it to the listener to decide whether it's "yes" or "no". And to those saying the answer was "it's undecided", no it wasn't. It was a "lets talk about something way less likely to cause us damage and if Trump seats a 3rd justice well, what do you think we will do". The 3rd justice is effectively a forgone conclusion. Even lead democrats admit they are powerless to stop it at this point.

Lets look at the possible outcomes.

Some nonsensical gibberish political talk actually able to be contrived as a "yes". What happens? They will almost certainly lose any voter remotely close to center. Even justice Ginsberg which for quite a while was the most leftist justice in the court was against adding seats to the court. Her justification (and I rarely agreed with her on anything ever) was a fairly accurate account. It makes what is supposed to be the third, impartial non political branch of government, a political weapon for which any time a large enough party majority in the other two basically subvert the court and the entire law making process by throwing more people ideologically aligned with them in the court until they reach a majority. This blatantly defeats the purpose of 3 but equal branches of government. Which the supreme court should be interpreting laws but in the past has been used to effectively create laws of the land that wouldn't pass through congress or a presidential veto by interpretations of law.

Some nonsensical gibberish political talk actually able to be contrived as a "no". They will immediately lose the support of the further left because they have this level of hatred that anything Trump has done is bad and evil therefor the appointees he has made are evil. Despite both Gorsuch and Kavanaugh at times opposing cases presented by the Trump administration. Barrett would also likely rule against the administration in any number of scenarios as well. But what did the answer accomplish? It warmed over the more centrist voter but completely decimated the more energetic leftist voter. The people that are still angry that Sanders didn't get the nomination for two election cycles so far. Not a good idea. Numbers indicate there was a reasonable number of people that were on the left side of the spectrum that likely voted for Trump out of spite in the last presidential cycle because Sanders was not the candidate.

Effectively every evaluation I have seen of the path to victory for Biden and Harris involves an extraordinary Democrat voter turnout. If they lose the left they lose. If they lose the middle they lose. If they lose latinos they lose. If they lose suburban voters they lose. If they lose LGBTQ voters they lose. If they lose even a sliver of the black vote they lose. In an environment where Trump has higher favorable ratings across nearly all cross-sections than he had in the previous election there is no answer that has a favorable outcome for their ticket. A horrible position to be in.

The purpose of dodging it was there literally is no answer for which there is a possible outcome that isn't self destruction. Which inadvertently the non answer may be perceived as either a yes or no alienating a lot of different voters but perhaps a lower number overall. An example are now the two narratives.

Narrative one. Refusal to answer is a yes and through a statement Harris/Biden (and not well phrased) implies voters are too stupid/incompetent/unimportant to know what he would actually intend to do when they vote for him. He has publicly already demonstrably insulted prospective voters. Challenging them to push up contests, calling one fat, telling others if they don't like him taking guns don't vote for him, telling people to vote for the other candidate multiple times thus far, that day one he would work to raise taxes, and other unpalatable things he has said leaves an engaged segment, that heard those things, and come to this conclusion that they just don't think they are worth informing what their vote means. These are most likely the more centrists in the registered party pool. Think union democrats from places like Pennsylvania (essentially required for any path to a Biden win at this point as some information is looking to have him blown out in a number of high electoral vote states) that tend to be more moderate and against the idea of using the court in this way.

Narrative two. Refusal to answer a no and through that statement Harris/Biden enrages their most left leaning possible voters. Despite what one would think since they are the loudest it's a relatively small segment and most of those people live in states that are fairly safe for Biden/Harris. Think the western coastal states, New York, etc. These are the people that believe the narrative to their core that Trump is orange evil man tyrant racist and all he does is bad. That his two picks so far are gang rapists and who knows what other claims were made, without evidence. That Barrett would overturn Roe vs Wade, and ban all abortions (overturning that case would not do that, it would delegate the power to state legislatures), and cause some other who knows what. These people DEMAND packing the courts because Trump will leave office with 3 appointees and likely another 2 if he wins a second term. He will have put in more than half the court with younger conservative justices that likely will survive 4 terms of office if not more and open the door for things like 2A cases to be more likely to be heard and more safely brought to the table. Big consequences for the left side of the aisle.

So, answering Yes, No, or dodging are all bad but having an implied answer alienates the least people from a probabilistic perspective. I can't imagine they didn't anticipate this question in one of the debates or from reporters at some point. If they didn't anticipate it they should fire every single person on their staff as it's been a topic that has come up a lot after Trump was suspected to end up with 3 appointees long before Ginsberg passed. They likely ran the risk assessment, realized there was no good answer, so the dodge was the most likely to cause loss of the least voters.

If it was me saying a clear "no I won't" was probably the safest as the people most likely to be lost in the vote by doing so are in states Biden/Harris will carry fairly well anyway and by leaving people up in the air leaves states like Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and other important states vulnerable to what the voters think instead of having a clear idea of intent from the candidate. The non answer will likely be a positive in the popular vote but the popular vote does not a presidential office win make.

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