Questions for Candidates

The Harkin Institute’s Questions for Candidates platform offers a series of questions and resources for Iowans and all Americans who want to engage with presidential candidates on issues associated with the Institute’s policy focus areas: labor and employment, people with disabilities, retirement security, and wellness and nutrition.

About this Project

In Iowa, in particular, voters have a unique opportunity to interact with presidential candidates face-to-face. Candidates are just as eager to hear from voters as they are to be heard by voters – a sentiment that should be reciprocated by their potential future constituents. This exchange of ideas is at the heart of this Q&A platform – whether it’s formal a formal televised event or an informal gathering in a neighbor’s home.

To create this platform, we analyzed the questions asked at 33 Democratic primary town halls between January and July 2019 and identified policy areas and approaches that are underrepresented in the public discourse.


Study of town hall questions

We collected 597 audience questions from 33 Democratic primary town halls that took place between January and July 2019. We used the topical trends from this data set to identify policy areas and approaches that are underrepresented in the public discourse. However, this study was limited by the self-selecting nature of those willing to ask questions at Democratic town halls. The beliefs and ideas represented in these venues may vary dramatically from those of the general public. The media was also able to select the audience members who were able to ask questions and these questions were pre-approved. Members of other parties and their viewpoints are largely unrepresented. Moreover, these town halls took place and night and on college campuses, which meant that college students, you people, and those with the flexibility to attend evening events are overrepresented. Likewise, other groups of Americans are under-represented.

This guide will seek to overcome the political bias in the sample in order to produce a nonpartisan tool for the whole public to use.


Preparing ahead of time

Asking candidates specific questions that require more than a yes or no answer and prompt them to move past their memorized talking points is important but does take work. Voters need to be informed on the issues and what candidates have said about issues already. Tools like the Questions for Candidates platform help voters learn more about issues that matter most to them.

Candidates’ websites are a good resource for gaining a base understanding of their positions on popular issues. Most candidates spend a significant amount of time and money to ensure their websites will be reliable for supporters and those seeking more information to find a clear and concise representation of their policy positions. They serve as a good tool for preparing to engage with candidates in person. Consulting a candidate’s webpage enables voters to familiarize themselves with central policy proposals and general opinions held by the candidate empowers those asking questions and other attendees to push candidates to make intricate connections and explore new issues in greater depth.


Constructing questions that produce meaningful answers

To get the most information from candidates, it is imperative we do not provide easy ways to get around questions. Politicians are known for pivoting to talking points instead of answering questions directly, but there are several ways to construct questions that will encourage candidates to provide real, thorough answers.

The limited utility of questions that can be answered with a simple “Yes” or “No” statement is well known, but we will reiterate here: questions that do require nothing more than a simple affirmative or negative response do not take advantage of the opportunity to engage with the candidate.

Many of the questions asked in this election cycle revolve around broad policy areas and are often a variation of, “What is your plan for issue X?” Questions like these are likely to tee up the candidate to recite his or her well-rehearsed talking points (which can be found at length on their website).

We can make our questions more concrete by linking them with current well-known policy proposals. Candidates currently holding elected office will need to back up their statements with past and present actions regarding that specific legislation or others like it rather than a general claim about their disposition toward the issue conceptually. While it is difficult to entirely eradicate candidates’ attempts to stick to their rehearsed stump speech, diagnosis of the problem without the prescription of a solution often fails to aid the public in distinguishing between candidates.

Purely diagnostic responses are often the result of binary response question such as, “Would you make addressing issue X a priority in your administration?” One way to generate questions that will lead to thoughtful, complex answers is to anchor your question in more than one issue. By linking one issue with another, candidates are forced to demonstrate a thorough understanding of issues as well as the impacts of their plans on other policy areas. The question examples that we recommend in this guide are designed to address more than one policy area.