Are Candidate Forums Just a Waste of Time?

Is it time to halt candiate forums and debates or is it simply time to rethink how they're run?

I used to think that taking the time to listen to candidates speak their minds was valuable. Certainly all the Presidential forums have shown us though, is that folks like to pick at a million different parts of the debates, most that have nothing to do with the questions or the real issues.

Then again, a good moderator can make a huge difference. CNN's Candy Crowley's methods, for instance, danced rings around CBS Bob Shieffer in the presidentials.

Locally I think there's an analogy in the run up to our Evanston elections in April, even though most are uncontested (which is a story all it's own).

I sat through a local forum at Haven Middle School last October with a half dozen state candidates - half Repubs the other Dems. The audience was perhaps 40 people, while the moderator was a nice local guy who I've met on several occassions. Unfortunately he wasn't forceful enough as a moderator to convince the candidates to abide by the rules he set out at the start. He entirely missed some of the candidate responses even though the audience tried to call his attention to the problem.

It seemed as if the Republican candidates had strategized that keeping the Dems on the defense that night was their goal. And I must say they did a swell job too.

But of course, we learned little of what the Republican candidates actually thought, mostly just what they didn't like ... their opponents.

While a strategy is perfectly legitimate in politics, the moderator needs to be able to see through these kinds of evasions to keep candidates focused on the issues.

One example from that night that stands out in my mind was when one of the Republicans demanded the Dems tell the audience whether or not they'd support Mike Madigan when they got back to Springfield ... "Yes or no?"

While I'm no Mike Madigan fan, I wasn't at Haven to choose a new Speaker. I wanted to know what the candidates thought of the pension crisis or property taxes or how to keep illegal guns out of the hands of the bad guys.

The moderator let this all slide until even the audience started yelling from the cheap seats. I did myself when I realized that the Republicans were making a great show out of trying to convince the Dems to defend themselves while adding nothing to the debate.

It's great to tell me at a forum that you're against Mike Madigan or that you don't want to raise taxes. But you need to tell me how you'll solve the problem if you want my vote.  

If I want to listen to someone who is only successful at reflecting the questions to their opponents I guess I could listen to the kids at Haven themselves ... although I'd bet one of them would probably figure out the moderator's skills - or lack of them - quicker than anyone did at last October's forum.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

june shellene January 09, 2013 at 09:12 PM
Robert, I have written a response to your blog...but in another blog...just posted. I referred to you as Mark...which, of course, your are. But now I see, you're Robert. At any rate, there it is.
Procrustes' Foil January 10, 2013 at 12:20 PM
Candidate forums are only as good as the moderators. if the moderator asks serious questions and demands serious answers we might see value in these forums.
june shellene January 12, 2013 at 02:40 AM
Robert, Are you there? C,mon...time's a wastin'. No time to be shy or timid. I said you were wrong. No response? Let's discuss. This is our country going down the tubes, for pete's sake.
Jeff Smith February 20, 2013 at 10:04 PM
Hi, Robert, Thanks for attending. I was the "nice local guy" moderator and this was essentially the same format CSNA has used for three previous successful forums. As moderator the touchstone's to be fair to all the candidates, while trying to process some notes (in this case, many) submitted by the audience, watching time, and adjusting next questions as needed. I defend the seriousness of our questions. We did specifically ask about pensions and taxes, and highlighted fiscal issues in our questionnaires (which we distribute in part because with 6 candidates, in-depth answers are very difficult). There's a line to walk between discipline of the participants and over-involvement. Sometimes giving a candidate a little leeway reveals more. Anyone who attended got to see some frank answers as well as some ducking and deflecting, plus some eyebrow-raising responses. Could I have jumped in more forcefully? Sure! But the moderator is like an umpire at a baseball game, the less noticed the purer the contest. If the candidates themselves don't point out another's dodging a question, should I do their job for them? The event is supposed to be about them, not the referee calling them out. Plus, every sidebar means some other question will get dropped because of time. Moderating is a lot of snap judgment calls and forums are like chocolates, each one's different. This was CSNA's first experience with partisanship. I do appreciate your constructive suggestions, tho, thanks.
Robert P. Mark February 20, 2013 at 10:54 PM
Oh I know who you are Jeff. I just didn't see any need to use names with my opinions. When folks start doing that I think it tends to makes people more defensive and that wasn't my intention. That said though, I must tell you I disagree with your take on moderating. I have experience in that role and while you are correct about knowing when to speak and when to hold your tongue, I think it's important to keep the discussion on track. By the time the Republican candidates could seem to think of nothing else to comment on other than to ask Laura Fine or Robyn Gabel about how they'd vote for Madigan, as well as when the audience began yelling, I thought it had lost it's focus. But that's just my two cents of course. I still love you guys :) Rob


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