Election 2024 analysis: How campaign event questions shape candidate responses

Election 2024 analysis: How campaign event questions shape candidate responses
Candidate forums give voters a chance to learn a candidate’s positions and views. (Photo/Jordan Tovin)

By Mark Eaton

Candidate forums, debates, “meet-and-greets,” neighborhood coffees and similar events are in full swing as the June 18 Democratic primary approaches. These gatherings offer the opportunity to meet and understand candidates, their backgrounds and their views and plans on city issues. Candidate forums are usually a “get-to-know-you” opportunity, distinct from a debate which involves a true exchange of views on substantive issues.

It can be a challenge to sort out the candidates’ generally earnest and thoughtful responses, but the questions at campaign events are also important. The value, or effectiveness, of the types of questions that incumbents and newcomers encounter in the pursuit of elective office vary widely. Here is a brief description of types of campaign questions and how to interpret them.

‘Yes or no’ questions

The “lightning round” format that limits candidates to “yes or no” or “thumbs up or thumbs down” responses is increasingly prevalent. This style of question seems to be an efficient way to “get someone on the record,” but it inevitably obscures or over-simplifies matters.

A “yes or no” question from a recent forum for mayor and City Council candidates was: Should City Council hold the School Board accountable? Of course, the only possible answer is “yes,” and all the candidates at the forum answered that way; however, exactly what does “yes” mean in this context? The School Board is a statutorily authorized elected body, so what does Council holding the Board “accountable” look like?

I asked some candidates about this after the forum. They offered thoughtful and varied views, mostly about the need for regular communication between Council and the Board. Even so, a “yes or no” question that contains an implicit sub-inquiry – in this case, “How?” – provides limited value to voters.

Questions that refer to the sponsoring organization

Candidates inevitably answer questions that refer to a forum sponsor by deferring to, or praising, that organization. An example: What should be the role of [insert name of event sponsor] in working with the City Council? This question type requires a very basic reading of the room by candidates.

Any candidate remotely in his or her right mind is going to answer with something like: “Thank you for the excellent question. I cannot think of an Alexandria organization that is more [important][valuable] [cosmically significant] to the life of our city and the work of the City Council than [insert name of debate sponsor.]” While the assurances of political relevance may comfort those affiliated with the event sponsor, how much real value is derived from a question that is tailored so it is reasonably answerable only one way?

Questions that assume a possibly non-existent consensus

Candidate forums are often sponsored by organizations with members that share values and/or political priorities. This can lead to candidate questions that assume a consensus that is broader than that which exists in the city at large. An example: What will you do to increase Alexandria’s critical shortage of affordable housing?

It is difficult to find a candidate who is against, or even lukewarm, about increasing affordable housing in Alexandria; however, the Zoning for Housing debate in 2023 revealed that there are widely varying degrees of support in Alexandria for increasing the supply of affordable housing in certain parts of the city. There are residents who are decidedly against, or apprehensive about, increasing affordable housing by amending the single-family provisions of the zoning code.

A more nuanced question might have been: “What will you do to increase the support for affordable housing among residents who are skeptical about it, and what will you do to increase the supply of affordable housing?”

Multiple answers to the same question

In the June 18 primary, Alexandria is blessed with three candidates for mayor and 11 candidates for seats on City Council. Assuming 100% attendance at a joint mayor-Council event, there are 14 potential responses if each candidate answers the same question. After five or six people have answered a question, it becomes difficult for a candidate to say anything unique or mind-changing. At that point, answers default to, “I agree with [my beloved colleagues] [the first five people who spoke] [everybody.]”

Of course, campaign event sponsors seek to treat candidates fairly and this is understandable. Even so, fairness can be attained without compelling every candidate to answer the exact same question. The information value to voters of responses often declines as the number of responses increases.

Questions requiring inside knowledge

Candidate events are usually attended by city affairs nerds with a greater than usual interest in city politics. Even so, the meaning of a question should not depend on terms of art or catchphrases. A question should be fully understandable by everyone present. An example from the current campaign: What is your position on the timing of the implementation of Phase II of Zoning for Housing? The 2023 ZFH debate is a receding memory for many Alexandrians. The question makes sense only to the cognoscenti who know what “Phase II” entails and why implementing it sooner or later might matter.

Questions that are being answered, but not asked

In this campaign, several candidates want to answer this question: “When did you first oppose the Potomac Yard sports and entertainment complex put forward by Monumental Sports & Entertainment and Gov. Glenn Youngkin?”

The desire of office-seekers to align themselves with the prevailing public opinion is understandable. This is sometimes called “running to the front of the parade.”

However, the date on which an Alexandria elected official or someone seeking elective office for the first time first opposed MSE’s sports and entertainment complex proposal had little or nothing to do with the project’s ultimate implosion. More crucially, it does not describe what should be built at Potomac Yard in the future. The better question might be: “What should be built at Potomac Yard that will benefit all Alexandrians, and what will you do to make this a reality?”

The upper hand

To the eternal frustration of voters and journalists, the natural power dynamic favors the person answering the question. As is evident on almost any Sunday television talk show, candidates may obfuscate, base an answer on nonexistent facts or answer a different question from the one that was asked. The challenge to voters is to be aware when candidates employ these tactics.

Sometimes, the question and the response reveal agendas. When I first ran for the School Board I participated in a forum at an elementary school. I was a clear outsider; other candidates were incumbents and better known in that part of the city. My question, supposedly only for me and drawn by lot, was: “Using a letter grade scale, what grade would you give the superintendent of schools for his performance?”

I knew I was in trouble. The question was difficult because opinions about the superintendent’s performance are always divergent. The question was also designed to elicit a response that might upset the superintendent’s supporters, his detractors, or both.

I answered the question this way: “I would give the Superintendent an I, or Incomplete, because the work of education is never done. I know he would agree with this grade.” I now see that I answered the question according to its terms while evading its central purpose of revealing what I thought of the superintendent. The better response would be that all employees, including public sector employees, are entitled to privacy in employment performance reviews.

Essential questions

The essential question, on which so much depends, for a candidate is, “Why do you want to serve as Alexandria’s [insert name of elective office]?” Properly answered, this question should elicit the candidate’s priorities and what he or she would do to achieve them and is more revealing of his or her thinking than a prescription for an identified problem, for example, “What would you do about [crime] [the schools] [traffic on Duke Street]?”

Too often, campaign event sponsors give candidates the opportunity to use a string of adjectives without more substance. For example, a candidate may run on assertions that Alexandria should be “safe,” “accessible” and “sustainable.” Well, “safe” by what measure? “Accessible” to whom and under what circumstances? “Sustainable” in what ways and at what costs?

This string-of-adjectives problem is compounded by a frequent omission in campaign events: the absence of follow-up questions. It is no accident that the interviews with political figures that added significantly to our understanding of those figures – such as David Frost’s interview with Richard Nixon and Roger Mudd’s interview with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy – were one-on-one conversations in which skilled interviewers asked follow-up questions.

Follow-up questions, from debate sponsors or other candidates, provide an additional level of understanding that enables voters to make informed choices, which is the core purpose of campaign events.

Do campaign events matter?

People think on their feet at different speeds. How deftly a candidate responds to a question in the moment is a partial indicator of qualification for office. Even so, many candidates find that campaign events sharpen their thinking about the issues they will deal with if they are elected. Even in an era of electronic communication, in-person campaign events, and the questions asked at these events, are an essential element of democracy.