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Candidate forums don’t have to be terrible

Moderators and hosting organizations have a responsibility to voters, not candidates.

Making predictions in Minnesota’s messy contests for governor, attorney general, or competitive congressional races is a perilous business. While we can’t know who will win Aug. 14’s DFL or GOP primaries, there is one sure bet this campaign season.

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Tane Danger

There will be a slew of candidate forums and debates between now and Election Day. The majority of those forums will be dull, uninformative, and generally terrible.

Candidate forums are a vital part of the democratic process where voters hear directly from would-be officials on issues and what sets them apart from their opponents. Yet in any effort to make forums “fair” to candidates, we have designed events with the educational and engagement value of watching concrete cure. 

It doesn’t have to be this way. It is possible to have candidate forums that are substantive, equitable to candidates, valuable to voters, and sincerely engaging. 

Did you remember to invite people to your forum? I cannot understand why so many organizations go to all the work of planning a forum, and then fail to publicize it or get the word out beyond a vague post on their Facebook page. Even the organizations that do get the word out about their forums rarely make any effort to communicate why the forum will be interesting, important or worth someone’s evening.

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This isn’t Field of Dreams. Just because you build a two-hour discussion of land-use policy for county commissioner candidates doesn’t mean people will come – and if those who do come will be the usual suspects.

Organizers have a responsibility to get the word out about their forum, including to communities beyond their immediate social circles. Organizers should make clear why anyone should care about the forum. They should also show why a forum isn’t just something a voter should feel obligated to do, but why it is something that they will actually enjoy and learn from.  

Moderate, don’t just time-keep. Some forums seem so concerned with ensuring each candidate gets precisely the same amount of time that they abandon any care for if a candidate actually answers a question. Candidates might love that. Voters ought to hate it and demand better.

A great forum moderator can and should do away with time limits. Whether a candidate has 30 seconds or five minutes will not affect whether they are actually answering the question on the table. The best moderators can hear a non-answer after just a few seconds and (politely) push the candidate to actually address the issue on the table. 

Frame questions in terms of specifics and action. There’s no point in asking every candidate in a forum to expound on something on which they all agree. Giving each participant in a Green Party forum two minutes to respond to, “Is climate change an important issue?” or at a Libertarian forum, “Wasn’t Fredrich Hayek great?” will result in a string of very similar responses that could just as easily be provided on a written questionnaire.

Instead, good forums ask candidates what specific policy or action they would take if elected. After one candidate responds, don’t let all the others vaguely agree that there are “some good ideas in that answer.” Ask them to say whether they would support those same proposals. Why or why not?           

Highlight differences. If candidates don’t agree on an issue, ask them about it directly. “If you had been in office during the last term, how would you have voted differently than your opponent?” Firmly encourage them to use specifics on votes on which the candidates disagree. Give the other candidates a chance to respond to those specifics. This makes for a conversation and a debate, not just a string of short, repetitive speeches.

Raise the bar for candidates. Keeping candidates on topic and avoiding spurious tangents is the most basic responsibility of a moderator. A moderator who allows a suburban mayoral candidate to read his manifesto about why the U.S. needs to get out of the U.N. needs to look for another job.

Better moderators will push candidates for specifics. “How?” is a painfully basic, yet powerful and bizarrely under-used follow-up to virtually any promise a candidate makes on stage. “How will you make college tuition free?”

Political candidate forums are a lot more art than science. Yet by keeping their intended purpose – informing voters – front of mind, we can make a lot of progress in improving these critical civic institutions.

Tane Danger is the co-founder and host of the civics-inspired improv comedy show, The Theater of Public Policy, through which he has moderated multiple candidate forums. He’s also a 2016 graduate of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.


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