Political Debates and Forums on the Local Level
Candidate forums and debates when you’re campaigning for local office aren’t the drama you see in the movies. In fact, holding such forums isn’t as common as you might think. Most of these events are rather dreary, attended by people who’ve already made up their minds and lacking in any gotcha moments or campaign-ending events.
The typical political forum involves candidates seated at a table or on a dais. These are all candidates for a specific seat, district, or ward. Each candidate is given time for an introduction. Questions are asked of each candidate, usually the same question over and over, and candidates are provided time for a response. All candidates consume the full time allotted.
What are often labeled debates for a local election are forums again, though they might provide an opportunity for candidates to respond to each other. Rarely does a local election rise to the level of the historic Lincoln–Douglass debates.
Most of the reason that candidate forms lack gravity at the local level is that the issues are mundane. Yes, everyone loves the city. Yes, everyone supports the schools. Only a few minor issues separate the candidates. The key factor an informed voter looks for is who can think well on their feet. They want to vote for people who are likable. They’re on the lookout for someone to screw up, lose their temper, or freeze at a key moment.
The number-one rule for any candidate forum or debate is to show up. Don’t make a show of the event by saying that the hosting group is biased and, therefore, you won’t attend. Don’t fabricate an excuse that you’re unavailable. Always show up to all events to which all candidates are invited.
Even if you’re not invited, show up anyway! A local group may host their favorite candidate but fail to invite you. If the meeting is open to the public, show up. You need not cause a scene or do anything, but your presence will be noted.
Before the event, determine how many candidates will share the stage with you. If the number is high, your answers will most likely match other candidates, so your goal is to stand out. Here are some suggestions:
- Be concise. Answer a yes-no question with “yes” or “no” and stop talking. If the moderator opens the door for a longer response, make one.
- Everyone loves to talk, but humans listen to only the first ten seconds or so of what you have to say. Make that part of your response the best. If you can’t get your message out in ten seconds, practice.
- Try not to take the full time to respond. It’s tough to shut up, but you can learn.
- Avoid getting into details. Numbers and specifics can trip you up. Speak in generalities. If the moderator asks for more information, direct them to your literature or website.
- Look like you’re enjoying yourself. In performance, the term is “to sell it.” Look like you’re doing the one thing everyone in the world would want to do at that time and like you’re having a great time doing it.
In a candidate forum or debate, experienced politicians have an advantage: They’ve done it before. They know what works. You can learn as well, but you must have studied various forums and debates locally to understand how to apply yourself well.
A common trick an incumbent pulls is when a challenger makes an accusation. The incumbent replies, “Why haven’t you contacted me in the past to bring up this issue?” This reply is an instant shutdown to whatever concern was raised. It shows that the challenger is making a hollow accusation.
Bone up on logical fallacies — for example, the strawman attack, bandwagon technique, and begging the question. The web has many sites that can train you in identifying these tactics, used mostly by amateurs, but that can be effectively shut down when you recognize them.
Don’t forget to thank the hosts, especially if you’re called on first either at the start of the forum or for the closing comments. After one candidate thanks the host, you don’t need to repeat the thank-you.
At the closing, direct people to your website or social media accounts.