USING ELECTIONS: Candidate Forums and Questionnaires

Hard questions should be asked of every candidate, every politician. And those public servants should be prepared to answer, but in their own words. Mark McKinnon

In the 1960s, the New Left’s rejection of both the Democratic Party’s dominant corporate liberalism and the Republican Party’s moderate business orientation – the only two choices in most elections – led to a distain for electoral politics as a whole. This rejection was reinforced by the long-standing bi-partisan support for the war on Vietnam and Cold War Imperialism, as well as by the “drop out” theme of the counter culture.


Since then, progressives have learned that who runs the government does matter; a lesson that Donald Trump has painfully seared into our consciousness. In fact, as Stacy Abrams and other Georgia activists have demonstrated, it is exactly community-based advocacy organizations that wage year-round campaigns around important local issues who are the “trusted friends” in the best position to mobilize people to push through all the barriers to the ballot box – including those normally skeptical about the relevance of voting to their lives. And it is important to remember that non-profits are legally able to play a major role in that public engagement process.


Sometimes, progressive coalitions can coalesce around a progressive candidate of their choosing. More typically, advocacy groups have to choose among candidates who have individually decided to run. In state-wide elections the media usually provides enough information to let people know a candidate’s general position on controversial issues. Especially in major markets where media corporations have larger budgets, we may also be given some insight into the person’s general personality, life experiences, and style. But in smaller districts and for less prominent issues it may be hard to learn much.


But evaluating candidates, learning about their positions and underlying values, is only one positive outcome of candidate-related electoral events. If properly done, advocacy groups can also use the process to let current (or future) decision-makers know more about your issue and your group, perhaps even establishing a useful relationship with them. It is also possible to get media attention and raise public awareness, putting you in a better position to pressure the eventual election victor no matter who it is.


If your own organization lacks the resources and people capacity to pull off an election-related event by yourselves, it might be possible to create a coalition of groups to distribute tasks. This might require broadening the focus of the event from your set of issues, but that may have the positive effect of also broadening the audience and the willingness of candidates to participate. Even if you can do it alone, creating a coalition might be a good first step for future cooperative efforts. Short of a full coalition, you can still broaden the appeal of your event by inviting a panel of “experts” – drawn from a range of related issues – to suggest questions or even pose questions themselves during part of the event.


THE CAVEATS

Unfortunately, in many situations, election-time may be too early for a candidate to give a definite opinion about a particularly complex or just emerging issue, especially those running for the first time. Even so, it is totally legitimate to ask candidates to be clear about the values they want the eventually selected policy to embody, the evidence that will most affect their evaluation of alternatives, the general implementation/operational approaches that they want to require, and the most likely obstacles to being able to incorporate those values into the legislation or program. Getting a full answer to these might require a conversation, perhaps in private, rather than a public debate.


In any case, you cannot approach these activities as a search for “gotcha” moments (although those may occur). Being taken seriously is a two-way street -- you have to treat candidates and current office-holders with respect at least until they prove they don’t deserve it. From an insiders perspective, Massachusetts State Senator William Brownsberger has said that “it's really unfair for organizations to expect candidates to commit on major issues without going through the legislative process. Of course, legislators respond with platitudes. The legislative process is actually very informative and invariably adds to and often changes one's perspective. A seasoned legislator tries not to get too far ahead of that process into positions that they will later regret.”


You need to also give candidates the opportunity to learn and change their mind – perhaps through their interaction with you or through their learning more about a topic through your materials and survey. You might want to allow them to change their answers, perhaps all the way up to election day – something most easily done if the questionnaire is done via a web-based application.


Finally, don’t try to surprise candidates with dramatic questions or highly technical questions they can’t possible fully answer and probably don’t know enough about – the job of elected officials is not to be experts but to be willing to listen to those of you who are. Better to let candidates know some of the questions you will ask and give them fact sheets, background information, and references for further research so they can come prepared. At the forum, it is possible to precede each round of questions with a very (very!) short list of key facts – but do NOT bore the audience by indulging yourselves with long speeches or complex technical background information.


QUESTIONNAIRES

The two most typical tactics are sending candidates a questionnaire/survey and holding a public forum. Of the hundreds of each that I have read and attended over the years, very few of the questionnaire responses were more than long exercises of political side-stepping; very few of the forums were more than boring recitations of platitudes. Very little of it helped anyone decide who to vote for – although some candidate’s performances or written answers were so bad that they eliminated themselves from consideration.


So, the question is how to make them better -- more informative, more interesting, more useful, and more effective in advancing advocacy goals.


The most direct way to get clarity is to ask each candidate for a Yes or No statement about a specific law, regulation, program, or other proposal. The problem is that while this keeps the answer focused it also prevents the candidate from discussing nuances and caveats that might eventually affect their position. A questionnaire that describes a specific proposal and asks for a Yes or No response might also provide an open-ended “please explain” box. Or the responses might be focused by having options like: “Yes, and preferably along with…”, “Yes, but only if…”, “No, but I’d change to yes if….”, and “No, because…”


Questionnaires are also a way to get the candidate to learn from you. Every question can be preceded by a paragraph providing key facts and even your organization’s framework of understanding along with sources of additional information. The survey can describe innovative solutions that your organization thinks ought to be adopted, preferably naming where it is already being done and the (positive) results, and then ask the candidate if they would be willing to support the creation of such a program or policy in your district – or why not and what else they would do instead.


Although it might feel pretentious, even more clarity might come from a four-part, highly structured set of questions, background material, and response options. This approach has the advantage of being less time consuming for a candidate to answer than an open-ended “essay question.” But it’s layout seems complicated and it severely limits the number of questions you can ask. For example:


A) QUESTION

  1. Do you support passage/implementation/more aggressive application of _____?

B) BACKGROUND FACTS (that you supply)

… short description of problem that the specific idea/policy/program/proposal will address/solve.

… short discussion about how/why this will work along with possible secondary benefits.

… examples of existing or previous implementation, and their results.

… to find more information about this see…


C) RESPONSE OPTIONS

NO, because it… _ violates my core principles/values/beliefs; specifically: __________ _ will not have the intended effect / the unintended consequences are too likely

and significant; specifically: _______________ _ is not do-able because: _________ _ other reasons for opposition: __________

MAYBE / CONDITIONAL YES / QUALIFIED NO I would fully support only if… _ it were changed in the following ways: ___________ _ other things happen first; specifically: ___________ _ the following other individuals/groups also express their support: ________ _ other caveats currently preventing full support: ________

YES / FULL SUPPORT __ I will aggressively support and push for full implementation, and in addition… _ I think the following should also be passed/implemented/done in order to achieve the desired full impact: _____________ _ Other reasons for support:___________

D: ADDITIONAL COMMENTS:


FORUMS

It is particularly difficult to avoid banalities at multi-candidate events. One approach is to include some “rapid response” moments presenting a specific proposal and giving each person a chance to say “yes”, “no”, “maybe”, or “pass”. If you have a desired answer to a question, don’t “fish” for it using vague questions – in one or two sentences (no more!) state your own (or your group’s) position and ask if they agree or have an alternative.


Debates can be illuminating and fun, although they are hard to do when the field of candidates is large. And staging a successful debate requires an extremely skilled moderator who understands the difference between an academic contest and a political event. (In the age of “alternative facts”, debates might also benefit from a panel of internet-connected fact-checkers.)


And there are less demanding ways to gain some of the benefits of debate-style interactions. For example, after giving each person a 2-minute slot to announce their position on a specific issue, do another round of 1-minute slots so they can each state how their position differs from the others’. If the stage is full of candidates, you might have several rounds of giving randomly selected two or three of them a 2-minute chance to answer a specific question and then giving two also randomly selected others a 1-minute chance for each to say how their own position differs. Then doing it again with another set of people. Or allow each candidate a chance to ask another person a question, followed by asking a randomly picked third person to critique the answer – or the question. (You have to really make sure that each of these “random” picks really are -- in fact and appearance. And you have to make sure that the random select ends up evenly distributing each kind of opportunity.)


Audience attention can be maintained by having attendees write down and pass in their own questions for selection by the moderator (or someone else) and being posed to all the candidates or the desired individual. Riskier but more exciting if it goes well is allowing audience members to line up at a microphone and simply ask what they want. A middle ground is requiring that questions be written and optionally signed by audience members, vetted and selected by a panel of your choosing, but then allowing the person who submitted it to read it at the microphone if they wish.


KILLER DETAILS

Candidate forums may be political events, but success requires more than good content. They have to run smoothly! Too often the audience can’t hear what is being said, or gets bored waiting for the organizers to deal with administrative details, or don’t understand what is going on.


Rule number one: TEST THE MICS! And right before the start, DO IT AGAIN. Right at the start, tell the candidates how to use the mics (e.g. “you have to hold it closer to your mouth than feels comfortable”). If they can’t be heard, quickly step up to correct the situation.


If you are using a variety of question/answer formats, explain how each will work right before you do it. Don’t have the candidates get up and move around once the event starts – everyone should stay in their seat and there should be enough microphones for everyone.


Don’t let the moderator(s) or panelists talk too much.


If people are going to speak or do anything in a random order, do the picking-names-from-a-hat before the event – you can offer to let each candidate send someone to watch – and at the start simply announce how you did it and just implement the results.


Set and be brutal about enforcing time limits for each answer – make sure there is a way for candidates (and the moderator) to see how much time they have left.


Give the audience a little space to clap or cheer – but not much. Stay in control. Have a drink afterwards. Good luck.


PROBING DEEPER: INDIVIDUAL MEETINGS

Debates favor people with quick answers and catchy slogans. But they don’t often reveal much about a candidate’s deeper “framework of understanding.” Even more than her or his yes/no position on a particular item, it might be more important to learn what a candidate thinks about….

– what are an issue’s immediate and contextual causes; – which groups of people are most effected and in what ways; – what are the power relationships that contribute to the negative aspects of the issue; – what are most effective solutions and what are their strengths and weaknesses; – how can solutions be paid for and by whom; – to what extent would the candidate prioritize spending time and money on this issue rather than on all the other really important issues they, and the government, will have to deal with.

For some advocates, even more important than positions is getting a sense of what a candidate cares about most deeply – the values and attitudes and personality traits that will, even if unconsciously, guide them through future decisions and actions. This is particularly important with new candidates, people who do not have a past record of public statements and actions.


Questionnaires don’t usually encourage these kinds of personal revelations. And in large public events such as candidate forums, avoiding a candidate’s stump-speech repetition of parental attributes and childhood events is extremely difficult without the presence of a skilled journalist or interviewer.


Talking to people who have worked with the candidate in the past might be a way to learn more about her/his personal values and personality traits. Private, off-the-record conversations with the candidate might also help. If the field is not too large, rather than sponsor a public forum, each candidate might be invited to address your group individually. (Of course, non-profits will have to offer this invitation to meet to every candidate, whether or not you expect them to accept the offer.)


Asking “how would you handle the following kind of situation….” might work. It might be useful to think of this as a hiring interview, asking “backdoor questions” such as the one a corporate CEO asks potential hires: “What are the qualities you like least and most about your parents?” Or “In terms of this position, what do you think are your shortcomings or lack of expertise and how do you intend to deal with them?” Or my favorite: “What was the last time you changed your mind, and what led you to do that?”

LEGAL LIMITS ON NON-PROFIT ELECTIONEERING

There is a lot of fear in the non-profit community (although not, it seems, in the far-right-wing philanthropic and religious worlds) about getting involved in elections. It is true that non-profits are not allowed to endorse specific candidates or take a public yes/no position about specific ballot questions. But that leaves much to do.


Non-profits can actively encourage and support their members to register to vote – something that advocacy groups usually do but most social service non-profits haven’t yet realized should be part of their mission. If you distribute a questionnaire or survey, you have to publish, in print or electronically, for public view, all the responses in full – although you are allowed to make it clear who did not respond. A nonprofit can also publicize it’s analysis of the reasons behind and the effects of policies and programs, as well propose alternatives and identify which candidates support which options.

Remember: it is totally legal for an individual, even one that happens to also be a member of your organization, to read all the responses and write their own analysis or summary. Although you can’t publish their material on your website or in your newsletter, it is totally legal for you to have a “free speech” table at your forum where anyone can leave material, including the person’s independent analysis/summary of the responses. (The person can also use their summary as the basis for letters to the editor or Op-ed pieces.)


There is lots of material available to help non-profits avoid IRS trouble while playing an active role in elections. One of the best sources I’ve found is Non-Profit Vote.

GOOD NEWS

Candidate events also provide an opportunity to educate the media and, through them, the public. Increase media interest by sending a “media alert” to all local outlets with a copy of your questionnaire or the questions you’ve told the candidates you will be asking – along with copies of the background material you’ve provided to the candidates. Ask the local community access cable TV channel to film and broadcast the event; or ask a friend with a good camera to video it -- post it on U-Tube and send it to local TV stations.


Make sure you have a web-site, Facebook page, and other on-line access points to post information about your event. You should describe which candidates have sent in responses to your survey – and which didn’t; which candidates will be attending your event – and which won’t commit. You should post the candidate’s responses to your survey – most easily done if candidates are asked to respond electronically. And you can post their responses – using a table for check-list format as much as possible rather than the difficult-to-wade-through typical Question-then-answer-after-answer format.


Ask one of your supporters to write a letter-to-the-editor summarizing the issues and the candidates’ responses.


Most important, and something you should be doing already, is to recruit a cadre of millennials to publicize the event and your involvement on social media.

GAINING EXPOSURE

Becoming known as a knowledgeable and relevant player makes advocacy easier. Announcements of candidate forums should be sent to people influential in your field of concern, professional and student groups that deal with similar issues, staff members of government organizations, journalist and media content producers, current and potential funders, and other non-profit or professional organizations with an interest in the issue. Afterwards, if any mention of the event appears in any media, send copies or links to the same set of groups and people.


Make sure that your outreach includes explicit invitations to the general public – don’t pass up the chance to pull in previously uninvolved and perhaps uninformed people.


At the event, don’t worry if people are looking at their phones. To the contrary -- encourage audience members to send on-going Tweets, Facebook postings, Instagram pictures, and any other messaging mode they can. Suggest a hashtag or title to use.


Make sure someone is taking pictures. Send a few pictures to local newspapers along with a brief summary of which candidates came, the size and nature of the audience, and any unexpected comments delivered or aspects of the event. Make sure to include your organization’s name in several parts of the text.

IMPACTING POST-ELECTION EVENTS

Politicians can’t know everything. For most issues they will go along with the opinion of people they trust so long as doing so doesn’t negatively impact the interests of their backers. It’s not ideal, but it’s how our system works.


It is possible that a questionnaire or forum leads a candidate to an “ah-ha” moment. But not likely. Usually, the best you can hope for is that whomever is elected knows a little more about the issue, is aware that there is a large constituency of voters (and potential campaign contributors) who care about it, sees your group as a legitimate expert voice, and is willing to listen to you at an appropriate time in the future.


No matter who wins, send her or him a congratulatory note and say that you’d like to continue the conversation with them in the future. If they made wonderfully supportive statements in your survey or during your event, quote them and say that you look forward to working with them to make it all happen.


And never forget that, as in most advocacy situations, your most powerful influence over the election comes from mobilizing your own base to cast informed votes, and then to hold office-holders accountable for their statements and promises.

Elections are a unique opportunity to attract media attention, educate the public, and engage both current and potential decision-makers. Go for it!

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