Source: League of Women Voters Education Fund http://www.smartvoter.org/voter/judgecan.html
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 it is a time to consider the issues which you care about and decide which candidate you support.
How do voters go about comparing and then judging candidates?
The seven steps outlined below are designed to help you judge a candidate.
- Decide what you are looking for in a candidate.
- Find out about the candidates
- Gather materials about the candidates
- Evaluate candidates' stands on issues
- Learn about the candidates' leadership abilities
- Learn how other people view the candidate
- Sorting it all out
Step 1: 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 office. Both are important. Your first step in picking a candidate is to decide the issues you care about and the 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 nuclear war, government funding for student loans or teenage unemployment. Those are issues.
When you consider leadership qualities, think about the characteristics you want in an effective leader. Do you look for intelligence, honesty, an ability to communicate?
Step 2: Find out about the candidates.
First find out which candidates are running in the race by going to Smart Voter. If Smart Voter is not available for your county, then look in your Sample Ballot mailed to you from your county elections office. Newspapers are another source of information.
Step 3: Gather materials about the candidates.
Put together a "library" of information about the candidates. Collect any information you can find on the candidates. Call campaign headquarters and watch the press. Sources of information from which you may choose include:
- campaign literature, including campaign Web sites
- nonpartisan online voter information Web sites like Smart Voter
- direct mail letters
- press reports (newspapers, television, and radio)
- radio and television ads
- candidates speeches
- candidate debates.
In a local race, interviews with the candidates can be helpful. For incumbents, a look at their voting records on issues that you have listed as important can tell you the candidates' positions on those issues.
Step 4: Evaluate candidates' stands on issues.
As you read the materials you collect, keep a record. Do the materials give you an overall impression of the candidates? What specific conclusions can you draw about the candidates' stand on issues? Fill in the Candidate Report Card as you gather new information (see end).
Step 5: Learn about the candidates' leadership abilities.
Decide if a candidate will be a good leader is difficult. How can you know if someone will be honest, open or able to act under pressure if elected to office? Here are some ways to read between the lines as you evaluate the candidates' leadership qualities.
- Look at the candidates' background and their experience. How well prepared are they for the job?
- Observe the candidates' campaigns. Do they accept speaking engagements before different groups - even those groups that might not be sympathetic? Do they accept invitations to debate? Do the campaigns emphasize media events where the candidates can be seen but not heard?
- Review the campaign materials. As you read the materials and watch the campaign develop, add to the Candidate Report Card. the information that provides insights into candidates' personalities and leadership qualities. For example, do campaign materials emphasize issues or just images? Are they accurate?
Step 6: Learn how other people view the candidate.
Now that you have accumulated information from campaigns and other sources, you will want to learn what other people think about the candidates. Their opinions can help to clarify your own views, but do not discount you own informed judgments. You may be the most careful observer of all!
- Seek the opinions o others in you community who keep track of political campaigns. Interview three people (not family members) such as shopkeeper, neighbor, or politically active volunteer, to find out 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 a way for interest groups and organizations to five a "stamp of approval" to a candidate. Endorsements provide clues to the issues a candidate supports. Get a list of endorsements from each candidates' headquarters. Find out what these groups stand for and find out 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 may small contributors, or from Political Action Committees? Many types of information about campaign contributions must be reported to the government and are watched by the press. Check the newspaper for stories on campaign finance. How might these campaign contributions affect the candidates' conduct in office?
- Throughout the campaign, opinion polls will be taken by a variety of groups to evaluate public support for the different candidates. Polls reveal who is leading at a certain point in the race. As you read the polls, ask these questions: Who sponsored the poll? Were all the figures released? What kinds of questions were asked? Were they slanted or unbiased? Who were respondents selected - randomly or such a way to include all segments of the population? How many people were included in the poll sample?
Step 7: Sorting it all out.
Review the information in your Candidate Report Card and compare all the candidates. Ask yourself these final questions:
- Which candidate's view on the issues do you agree with the most?
- Who ran the fairest campaign?
- Which candidate demonstrated the most knowledge on the issues?
- Which candidate has the leadership qualities you are looking for?
Is the choice clear? If so, pick a candidate.
Evaluate candidates' use of television
More and more, people tune in to televisions for their main source of information. Television is a visual medium dependent on good pictures and timely events to tug at your emotions and keep your interest. Candidates are aware of the potential power of television and try to use it to their advantage. For instance, in a newscast, the picture you see of a crowd with banners and balloons cheering a candidate may have been staged by a media advisor whose job is to make the candidate look good on television. As you watch news coverage of campaigns, be aware of staged events and try to find out what the candidate is saying about the issues. When you watch political ads you need to be aware of how the media influences your reactions. Ask yourself some questions as you watch. Did you find out anything about issues or qualifications? Or was the ad designed only to affect your attitude or feelings about a candidate? How important were the script, setting and music?
Seeing through distortion techniques.
All candidates are trying to sell themselves to voters. Sometimes their language is so skillfully crafted that they distort the truth in way that are difficult for even the most careful observer to detect. Here are some examples of distortion techniques that you should watch for as you review candidates' campaign materials.
Common distortion techniques:
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.
These include statements such as, "Everyone says my opponent is a crook, but I have no personal knowledge of any wrongdoing," which imply (but do not state) that the opponent is guilty.
Guilt by association:
These are statements such as, "We all know Candidate B is backed by big money interest," that attack candidates because of their support rather than because of their stands on the issues.
These are 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.
Promising the sky:
These are unrealistic promises that no one elected official could fulfill.
Evading real issues:
These include instances in which candidates may avoid answering direct questions, offer only vague solutions or talk about the benefits of proposed programs but never get specific about possible problems or costs.
Prepare a Candidate Report Card
List Issues: Your Priority Issues
List your positions and rank the candidates on how they stand on the issues and your positions
List the Leadership Qualities you want and rank the candidates on those qualities.