CANDIDATE FORUMS AND QUESTIONNAIRES: Using Elections for Effective Advocacy

Another campaign season is over and, except for Special Elections, mass voting won’t happen again until next Fall.  But now is the time to begin preparing ways to clarify what candidates – for elected and appointed offices -- believe and will do about your issues.  And it is important to remember that non-profits are legally able to play a major role in that public education process.

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 I personally eliminated them from consideration.

Still, setting up candidate events is an important part of advocacy work.  So, the question is how to make them better -- more informative, more interesting, more useful, and more effective in advancing advocacy goals.  And that starts with becoming clear about the full range of effects that we’re trying to accomplish.  The typical purpose of election-related events is to learn more about candidates and their positions.  Two under-appreciated but equally valuable functions are to establish a relationship with current (or future) decision-makers and to let politicians learn more about you and your issues.  A related and worthwhile goal is using the event to gain increased public visibility for your issue and your organization.  And, if done well with lots of opportunity for public engagement, these events can provide a first taste of political engagement for previously uninvolved people.

 

THE BIG 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.  As Massachusetts State Senator William Brownsberger wrote, “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.”  In that context, it might be more effective to ask for a separate private (or public) conversation with each candidate to give you and the office-seeker a chance to exchange information and get to know each other.

If you want to send out a questionnaire or host a forum, remember that candidates can be flooded with surveys and overwhelmed with invitations – to the point that they (understandably) have to start ignoring some.  You are most likely to gain their attention if you are part of a broad coalition that sends out a joint survey or co-sponsors a single forum.  If you know that other groups are already planning to distribute a questionnaire, see if you can add a question or two rather than create yet another one which will reduce the chances of either survey getting answered.  Then, once you’ve sent out the survey (or the invitation to fill-in answers on an electronic survey), follow up with phone calls from people in the candidate’s district saying “these issues are important to me; I urge you to fill out the questionnaire and come to the forum.”

You need to also give candidates the opportunity to learn and change their mind – perhaps through their interaction with you.  You might want to allow them to change their answers (most easily done if the questionnaire is done via a web-based application) all the way up to election day.

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 as least until they prove they don’t deserve it.

 

LEARNING FROM THE CANDIDATE

The standard function of candidate events is to let them tell us more about themselves. In larger-scale 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.

The most direct approach is to ask each candidate for a Yes or No statement about a specific law, regulation, program, or other proposal.  The trick here is to keep the answer from wandering without actually giving a definitive response while also allowing candidates to discuss nuances and caveats.  A questionnaire that describes a specific proposal and asks for a Yes or No response might then 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….”, “No, because…”  

Although it might feel pretentious, even more clarity might come from a highly structured set of response options.  For example:

SURVEY QUESTION

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

RESPONSE OPTIONS

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

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 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 each 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.)

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 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.)

 

PROBING DEEPER

As a complement to specific positions about specific issues, it is often useful to learn more about a candidate’s “framework of understanding” of an issue:

 – what are its immediate and contextual causes;
 – which groups of people does it most effect and in what ways;
 – what are the (usually unequal) 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 will have to deal with.  

To get at these deeper points, your questionnaire can provide describe your group’s positions and ask if they candidate agrees or disagrees and why.  Another approach is to provide several different types of answers to one or more of these “framework” issues (your own along with a couple other commonly held beliefs) and ask candidates to identify which best expresses their own, but also allows them to select “none of the above” and write their own.  At a forum, the “framework of understanding” components should be divided into separate questions – with the “to what extent will you prioritize this over other issues” perhaps the most revealing. 

 

ATTITUDES AND PERSONAL INTEREST

For some advocates, even more important than positions on particular issues 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.  In large public events, 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 person – an invitation to these would have to be given to every candidate of all parties – might also help.

At public events, 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 about getting involved in elections.  It is true that non-profits are not allowed to endorse specific candidates or take a public yes/now 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, all the responses – although you are allowed to make it clear who did not respond. 

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 independent analysis/summary of the responses.

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.   

 

HAVING THEM LEARN FROM YOU

An underappreciated goal of campaign events is educating candidates – and the public – about your issue.  Questionnaires are most useful for this – 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.  

Before a forum or even a private conversation 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.  (This material can also be placed on the “free speech” table at the event.)  At the forum, it is possible to precede each round of questions with a very short list of key facts – but do NOT bore the audience by indulging yourselves with long speeches or complex technical background information.

 

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 the people who wrote analytic summaries of the candidates’ responses to your questionnaire to send a letter-to-the-editor to local newspapers.

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 better known as a knowledgeable and relevant player makes advocacy easier.  Invitations to 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.

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 single or 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.

At the event, don’t worry if people are looking at their phones.  To the contrary -- encourage audience members to send on-going Tweets, Face Book 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 while either deliberately or unconsciously serving the interests of the people who voted for them.  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 the next person who holds that elected office 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 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.

 

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 you are using a variety of question/answer formats, explain how each will work right before you do it.  Don’t have people 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.

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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Thanks to Janet Domenitz, Stacy Thompson, and Massachusetts Senator Brownsberger for feedback on earlier versions.

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Related previous blogs include:

> Protest, Pushing, Partnership:  The Three Phases of Advocacy (3/6/17)

> The Advocates’ Dilemma:  When the Need for Action is Immediate But the Pace of Change is Slow  (8/14/13)

> Why the Public Sector Can’t Be “Run Like A Business” 2/15/10)

> Public-Private Partnerships (P3): The Priority Must Be Enhancing Public Value  (4/17/13)

> Art, Culture, and Progressive Change   (12/30/10)

> The Occupy Movement and Advocacy:  Movement Building, Institutional Reform, and Organizational Development (part I)   (10/24/11)

> The Occupy Movement and Advocacy:  Movement Building, Institutional Reform, and Organizational Development (part 2)  (11/5/11)

 

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