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Pro-Freedom Candidates Passing Up Candidate Forums? Good!!!

We’ll drop the constitutional-wonk stuff this week, and talk some practical politics.

Our local paper has a story about how the Boulder, Colorado League of Women Voters had to cancel a candidate forum because local Republican candidates decided to direct their attentions elsewhere.  The story has some generalized comment about how GOP candidates are allegedly avoiding forums this year.

If so, then it’s about time.

This is a subject I can speak about with some authority.  I’ve been attending public candidate forums on and off since I was a teenager in the 1960s.  More recently, I ran twice for statewide office in Montana and spoke at a great number of candidate debates and forums.  I generally did pretty well—people say I have the gift of gab.  After all, I was a law professor for 25 years.  But most conservative and libertarian candidates would be well advised to skip most forums.

Candidate forums generally are not a good way of communicating with the public.  Almost everyone in the audience at a typical forum is affiliated with one of the participants in some way or other—campaign workers, anxious spouses, proud papas and mamas, and opposition spies.  That means almost everyone in the audience usually has his mind made up already.  Only a minority of forums ever lead to newspaper stories.  The reports tend to be relatively uninteresting, and introduced with totally eye-glazing headlines like “Candidates Trade Barbs.”  That is, unless a conservative candidate screws up—and then the banner is likely to read, “GOP/Tea Party Candidate Favors Feeding Social Security Mothers To Ravenous Sharks.”

As one might expect,  most of candidate forums are sponsored by people with consuming interests in politics and government—the League of Women Voters, for example.  In the nature of things, most people with a consuming interest in politics and government also favor more government and more political “solutions” to human problems.  (Many of them work for government, too.)  Those of us who want less government tend to put higher priority on religion, business, family, charity, and other private-sector activities than on sponsoring political gabfests.

Indeed, many forums are ego-trips for their sponsors.  They see themselves as fulfilling an important “role” in the “process.”  You can tell these kinds of forums because they usually are introduced by a pretentious and sanctimonious sermon from one of the organizers about the how events like these are the very “cornerstones of our American democracy.”

Ego-trip or not, sponsors tend to bias forums toward their views, and since most forums are organized by collectivists, than means toward collectivist views.  More and more pro-freedom candidates have been figuring this out.  This is why the League of Women Voters, one of the more persistent offenders, sometimes finds itself without Republican participants.

In fact, the collectivist bias tends to infect even some GOP forums, which often are sponsored by the Republican “establishment” rather than by more conservative activists.   And even forums promoted by seemingly-conservative entities (“Individualistic and Patriotic Ranchers of America”) can be subtlety influenced this way if organized by the group’s professional lobbyists.

Sometimes the bias is clearly intentional.  In one televised forum in which I participated as a candidate, the sponsors placed my podium further back on the stage than the podium of my more liberal opponent.  I was in shadow, while my opponent was in the light.  In another forum, my more liberal opponent (not normally an informed person) kept hitting the panel’s questions out of the ballpark, even questions on obscure topics.  It was soon evident to me (although I doubt to the audience) that someone had slipped my opponent the questions in advance.

To be sure, the bias usually is not intentional, and the sponsors honestly believe they are being fair.  But their own ideology may undermine fairness.  Consider the following scenario at a forum featuring candidates in a three-way election:

Q.  How does each of you believe the federal government should target stimulus money to help the economy?

Statist candidate #1: I believe we should target the money at education.

Statist candidate #2: I believe we should target the money at infrastructure.
Free market candidate: I don’t believe in federal stimulus money; I think it’s unconstitutional; and by taking money from the private sector it kills roughly five times as many jobs as it creates.

Notice how the free market candidate seems more picky and “extreme” than the others because he has to argue with the assumption behind the question.  If the forum were run by libertarians, it might go like this:

Q.  Why does each of you believe the federal government’s stimulus program has failed?

Statist candidate #1: I don’t think it has failed; it has really helped education.
Statist candidate #2: I don’t think it has failed; it has really helped infrastructure.
Free market candidate: It has failed because by taking money out of the private sector, the federal stimulus program has cost us at least five times as many jobs as it has created.

Because of the assumption of the question, the free market candidate seems less querulous or extreme, even though the other candidates still outnumber him 2-1.

If you are a candidate, keep in mind that there is only one time a forum really can influence the election—and that is if you screw up.  That gives your opponent fodder for his TV and radio ads, and (if you are conservative or libertarian) it will be all over the news as well.

Consider also opportunity costs.  Campaign time isn’t free.  In fact, it’s precious.  For most candidates,  the time spent preparing for and participating in forums is usually (not invariably) better spent on activities like fundraising, organizing, and rallying supporters.

But if you do participate, remember this: Your ability to persuade at such events lies more in your appearance and voice quality than in what you actually say.

Rob Natelson