HOW TO CHOOSE A CANDIDATE
Elections present voters with important choices. Whether it is a local race that will affect your community or a national race that could change the direction of the country, elections are a time to consider the issues you care about and decide which candidate you support.
The quickening pace of American living and our dependence on mass media have greatly changed the way we get our political information. Style, far more than substance, weighs heavily in today's campaigns with their 10 second sound bites, news shows "photo ops," political flyers, mass mailings and carefully crafted websites.
Major political campaigns, with all of their excitement, activity and extensive news coverage can bombard you with images and impressions, yet leave you with very little real information about the candidates and their stands on issues.
How do voters go about comparing and then choosing a candidate?
DECIDE WHAT YOU ARE LOOKING FOR IN A CANDIDATE
Candidates can be judged in two ways: the positions they take on issues and the leadership qualities and experience they would bring to the office. Both are important. Your first step in picking a candidate is to decide which issues you care most about and what qualities you want in a leader.
When you consider issues, think about community or national problems that you want people in government to address. For example, you may be interested in the threat of terrorist activities, government funding for student loans, teenage unemployment, health care, etc. When you consider leadership qualities, think about the characteristics you want in an effective leader. Look at the candidate's background and their experience. Do they have the intelligence, honesty and ability to communicate you want in a public official?
TAKE A GOOD LOOK AT CAMPAIGN INFORMATION
Television and radio commercials
Candidates are aware of the potential power of television and try to use it to their advantage. When you see or hear a paid political ad, ask yourself some questions. What did you learn about the candidate from the ad? Did you find out anything about issues or qualifications? Or was the ad designed only to affect feeling or attitudes about the candidate? Was the ad designed to appeal to a specific group: women, minorities, older voters, single issue voters? You can learn about issues, even from a 15-second TV or radio commercial, if the candidate wants you to, or if you can separate the substance from the glitter. As you watch political ads be aware of how the media is trying to influence your reactions.
More and more candidates are using direct mailings or e-mails to solicit funds or votes. Computerization and the internet make it easy to send "personalized" appeals to selected groups of voters. Candidates can send members of women's groups one message, for example, and members of veteran's organizations another message. However, if you are aware that you must read between the lines to get the full story, the direct mail letter or e-mail can often help you understand the candidate's stands on the issues. Recognize that they are a campaign tactic and try to see what you can learn from them.
Pamphlets and Flyers
The leaflet slid under your door or handed to you at the store may contain valid substantive information or it may be full of lies, distortions or evasions. Read it critically. Does it tell you more about the candidate's devotion to family and country than about qualifications for office or stands on issues? Be on the lookout for accusations or other statements about opponents, especially if they are made so close to election day that such statements cannot be answered or denied.
BE AWARE OF DISTORTION TECHNIQUES
RATE THE CANDIDATE ON HOW THEY CAMPAIGN
- Name calling/Appeals to prejudice: These are attacks on an opponent based on characteristics that will not affect performance in office. References to race, ethnicity or martial status can be subtly used to instill prejudice.
- Rumor mongering: Watch for unsubstantiated statements or innuendo. These include statements such as, "I've heard that Jones is soft on crime." "I can't speak for Mr. Riley and Ms. Baker, but I never would have awarded such a low-cost loan to an out-of state builder." "Everyone says my opponent is a crook, but I have no personal knowledge of any wrongdoing," which implies (but does not state) that the opponent is guilty. Legal, perhaps, but dirty campaigning. Such "dark hints" can sway an election if voters are unwary.
- Guilt by association: Look carefully at criticism of a candidate based on candidate's supporters - "We all know Representative Smith is backed by big money interests" or "The union has Senator Jones in its pocket." Every candidate needs support from a wide range of people and groups, some who may not represent the candidate's views on all the issues. Judge the candidate's own words and deeds.
- Catchwords: Beware of empty phrases such as "law and order" or "un-American" that are designed to trigger a knee-jerk emotional reaction rather than to inform.
- Passing the blame: These are instances in which a candidate denies responsibility for an action or blames an opponent for things over which he or she had no control. When one candidate accuses another candidate, or party, of being the cause of a major problem such as unemployment or inflation, check it out. The incumbent or the party in power is often accused of causing all the woes of the world. Was the candidate really in a position to solve the problem? What other factors were at work? Has there been time to tackle the problem?
- Promising the sky: There are promises that no one in an elective office can fulfill and problems that are beyond the reach of political solutions. Public officials can accomplish realistic goals, but voters shouldn't expect miracles and candidates shouldn't promise them. When you hear nothing but "promises, promises" consider how realistic these promises really are.
Evading real issues: Some candidates work very hard to avoid giving direct answers to direct questions. It's not enough, for instance, for a candidate to say, "I've always been concerned about the high cost of health care," and leave it at that. And the candidate who claims to have a secret, easy plan to solve a tough problem is often just coping out. Watch out for candidates who talk about the benefits of a particular program but never mention how the program would work or what it would cost.
The way a candidate runs a campaign can provide important clues to how that candidate will perform as a public official once elected. A contender who runs an open, straightforward, issue-oriented campaign can be expected to become an accessible, forthright and thoughtful public official. So evaluate the contenders on their campaign performance.
LEARN HOW OTHER PEOPLE VIEW THE CANDIDATE
- Accessibility: Is the candidate willing to debate with opponents? Does the candidate meet regularly with the press? Does the candidate accept speaking engagements before different groups, even those who might not be sympathetic? Does the candidate appear in person or avoid public scrutiny by sending "stand-ins"?
- Information: Do campaign ads provide clear information on issue positions? Can you easily obtain position papers or answers to your questions? Are a candidate's qualifications clearly stated, and are they the ones that will count in public office? Is the candidate's voting record easy to get?
- Openness: Seeing a candidate "pressing the flesh" in a parking lot or at a huge political rally won't tell you much about the candidate's stance. Most of us must rely on the candidate's use of media to find out more. Here are some things to watch for:
- In a broadcast interview, who is the interviewer? Is the interviewer a regular station or network staff person with no special ax to grind or is it an ally of the candidate, asking only friendly carefully phrased questions, or an antagonist out to make the candidate look bad? Does the interviewer follow up, if answers are evasive or off the point?
- In a question-and-answer session, what about the audience? Where did they come from? Who selected them, the candidate's party or staff? The broadcaster? A disinterested party? If you are not sure, call the station or campaign headquarters and ask.
- Where does the candidate appear? Does the campaign emphasize media events, where the candidate can be seen but not heard, a parade, a beauty contest, a county fair? Talking only on narrow surefire subjects to safe audiences is a cop out. Voters deserve a broader perspective.
Other people's opinions can help to clarify your own views, but do not discount your own informed judgments. You may be the most careful observer of all!
CHECK OTHER SOURCES
- Seek the opinions of others in your community who keep track of political campaigns. Ask them which candidate they support and why. Learn what has shaped their political opinions. Was it an event? An idea or program proposed by a candidate? A particular issue about which they feel strongly? A long-standing party loyalty?
- Learn about endorsements. This is one way issue groups and organizations give a "stamp of approval" to a candidate. Endorsements can provide clues to the issues a candidate supports. Find out what these groups stand for and why they are endorsing this candidate.
- Look into campaign contributions. Where do the candidates get the funds to finance their campaigns? Do they use their own money or raise funds from a few wealthy donors, from many small contributors or from Political Action Committees (PACs)? How might these campaign contributions affect the candidates' conduct in office? Contributions must be reported to the government. The press usually reports on campaign contributions when the candidates file their reports. Check your local newspaper or the internet.
Throughout campaigns, opinion polls are taken by a variety of groups to evaluate public support for the different candidates. Don't support a candidate just because the polls say that a majority in your age group, region, ethnic group or party does. Before you believe everything you read in a poll, ask these questions:
- Who sponsored the poll? Were all the figures released? When parties and candidates pay for polls they may not publish unfavorable data.
- Was the poll affected by a key event? Public opinion can change drastically due to a highly publicized event such as a military crisis or a political scandal.
- What questions were asked? Were the questions clear and reflect real choices or were they slanted? You can easily spot blatantly biased questions that can't help but produce a resounding Yes or No, but also look for ones that subtly steer a respondent to a certain answer or leave no room for a Yes, if....... or a No, but....... answer.
- Who was interviewed? How were respondents selected? Randomly or in such a way to include all segments of the population proportionately? If not the results may tell you how a small group feels, but nothing about the total population being sampled.
- How many were interviewed? No matter how well a poll is done, there is always a margin of error. The smaller the sample, the wider the margin.
- How long ago? Even the best polls are just a snapshot in time. People may change their minds in a day, a week or a month especially in the charged atmosphere of political campaigns. Remember, once the "undecided" make up their minds, the results could change drastically. Look for polls that compare current figures and past ones, and try to spot trends.
- Some organizations representing special interest groups (business, environment, labor, the elderly, etc.) sift through senators' and representatives' myriad votes on crucial bills and rate them on how closely they match the group's point of view. Similar ratings are often done for state and even local candidates. These ratings can help you but they can also be misleading. So use them wisely, as a way to gauge an incumbent's positions, but never take them as the final word.
- Check the organization's reputation. Does it have a record of accurately analysis an reporting? Is it supported by those it claims to represent?
- What is the group's bias? Which issues are important to its constituents? Are they the same ones you care about? What one group might label as a vote for wasteful spending, another might see as a vote in support of a vital social remedy. Conflicting goals and perceptions lead to conflicting ratings.
Pinpoint the issues that are important to you. Decide what changes you feel your community, state and country need most. What do you want to keep the same? Will your interests be served by programs the candidate is proposing? As you ponder, weigh alternatives and listen to people on both sides of an issue. Look at cause and effect. Consider what you have to trade off to get what you want.
Then Choose Your Candidate and DO SOMETHING!
AND THEN VOTE ! !
- Back the candidates you believe in financially. Remember even the smallest contribution is appreciated.
- Volunteer. It's amazing the interesting people you meet going door to door for a candidate or when handing out campaign literature at the mall.
- Talk to your friends and co-workers about your candidates.
- Call TV and radio stations to praise or criticize campaign spots.
- Tell candidates, newspapers and party leaders how you feel about the issues through letters, e-mails and/or phone calls.