How to research political candidates
A follow-up to the checklist of things to do before election day, this post gives an overview of 4 criteria for evaluating political candidates, seeing through distortion techniques, and 5 places voters might find candidate information.
It is critical to a democratic society that its citizens participate in government in an informed manner. Nowhere is this need for information greater than in the voting booth. Sadly, it can be extremely difficult to locate even basic elections information such as how to register to vote or who will be on the ballot on election day.
Even if a citizen does manage to register and figure out which candidates will be on the ballot, she/he is often left clueless about how to choose between those candidates, especially at the local level. Deciding who to vote for is very much a matter of both knowing where to look for information on candidates and then knowing how to make judgments about that information.
You can evaluate a candidate based on in four kinds of information.
- First, you can look at what a candidate DOES, one of the best ways to evaluate them. Unfortunately, finding a candidate's record can be difficult for incumbents and downright impossible for challengers. Plus, even if you find those records, figuring out what they mean can be confusing.
- Second, you can judge a candidate based on WHO they are: their story, character, experience, perspectives, and associations. Some of their biography, often found in campaign web sites or fliers, will be factual: how long they've held particular jobs and what community and professional organizations they belong to. Other parts, such as their character, are harder to judge. By seeing a candidate, either in a televised debate or in person, you can often get an intuitive sense of how they see the world from how they carry themselves and interact with the other candidates.
- This intuitive sense of a candidate can lead you to a third way of evaluating them: what they SAY. This is often the easiest information to find, as politicians make a lot of public statements and speeches and even take stands on particular issues on their web sites. Sadly, this is not the best way to judge a candidate, because you can't always tell if they are being truthful. However, comparing their records to their speeches can help you evaluate their character.
- Finally, you can judge a candidate based on what OTHER PEOPLE say about them. Obviously, you should be very cautious about believing what an opponent says, as they have a definite interest in making the other candidate look bad. Nonetheless, opponents often point out areas of significant disagreement and this can help you know where they stand on key issues. In addition, you can look at a candidate's endorsements. Are these endorsers people whose opinion you respect and generally agree with? Are there any particular professions which might be best qualified to evaluate this candidate? Lawyers, for instance, might best evaluate judicial candidates. But, be careful when listening to other people's opinions, to always listen for bias.
The League of Women Voters has a great section on seeing through distortion techniques in their "How to Judge a Candidate" article.
Understanding these four ways of judging a candidate are not enough, you also need to know where to find the information that will let you flesh out these four areas. There are a number of different places you can look, but most of them fall into the following categories:
- Government records can be difficult to interpret without background information, but are the best source for factual information about candidates, particularly the records and job performance of incumbents.
- Various community groups can be very helpful in interpreting public records: non-partisans (such as libraries) make a point of being unbiased; advocates are clear about their issues and bias; and professionals are often uniquely positioned to evaluate a member of or an issue within their profession.
- News media can be one of your best and, often, only sources of information for local races and may also consider local concerns when covering national races.
- Debates, whether in-person or recorded, can give a great deal of information. You can use your intuition to judge what a candidate communicates non-verbally.
- Campaign publications, be they web sites or flyers in the mail, are self-promotional in nature, but they can often give insight into who the candidate is and what they think makes them the better choice.