Politics is becoming a very contentious area these days. People are defriending those who don’t share their political persuasions. So why in the world would you want your chamber to become more political and host a meet the candidates night?
Chambers must look out for the needs of business. As the voice of business, they are already championing business needs on many fronts. While you may not feel compelled to endorse a candidate, especially in a highly contested race, you may want to consider helping your community members to get the information they need in order to make the best decision for themselves and their businesses.
This is usually done by hosting a Meet the Candidates Night (or luncheon event or candidates forum). If you’ve never done one, or if it’s been a while, you’ll want to consider the advice in this guide. In it you’ll learn:
- various formats/forums for Meet the Candidates events
- pitfalls involved in political discourse
- consideration for endorsing a candidate
- managing the details of a successful event
Before the Primary vs. After the Primary Meet the Candidates Events
There are two major factors involved in candidate events when it comes to timing. They will flavor your event. They are those held before the primary and those held after. Obviously, those held before the primary will have (potentially) a much larger candidate pool. It’s generally easier to book a candidate before the primary than after. Their “dance card” fills up quickly once they have the party nomination.
Before you invite the candidates, decide how you will address the “barrier to entry.” A safe way to do that is to only invite candidates who get enough votes to officially be on the ballot. While that sounds obvious, if you host a candidate night too early when everyone is still trying to get the necessary signatures to get their name on the ballot, you won’t have that as a fallback and some smaller parties and candidates may question your definition of “candidate” and who is included and excluded. To avoid that, wait until ballots are released.
If you want to host something before that, make it an information session about upcoming legislative issues. Invite a few candidates to address specific business and commerce issues facing your community.
Meet the Candidates Formats
There are many formats you can use. You’ll choose a format based on several things including community interest, candidate availability and willingness, and the position the candidates are running for.
Audience preference. Some audiences expect a question and answer forum, for instance. They take a very active interest in screening their candidates. Others just want to come and listen to them speak. Others may expect to meet them personally. While you can’t always deliver exactly what your audience wants, know that their preferences should be factored in. You can select more than one as well. You can have a question and answer for the community and a private meet and greet for your CEO members.
Candidate availability and willingness. Some candidates will be able to come to your event, while some may send someone from their campaign to speak on their behalf. Schedules get booked up quickly so if you’re not flexible on your date and time, don’t be surprised when they can’t accommodate your chamber.
Also, some campaign managers have very specific “rules” about the kind of forum a candidate will take part in. For instance, while they will allow for direct Q&A sessions, they may not agree to direct candidate debate (debate team style). Speak to the campaign to find out what format they are agreeable to before planning the event.
Race. The race the candidate is in will also affect their ability to attend your event as well as the amount of time they spend with you. For instance, a local township trustee may be willing to give you their entire night, while a congressional candidate may need to make several stops, limiting the amount of time they have to answer questions.
Remember, it’s not the chamber. It’s the number of constituents. A person running for Congress (or Senate or governor) has to cover a lot more distance and reach more people than someone running on a city-wide level. You can command more of their time if you’re able to promise and deliver on a larger crowd. When inviting them be very specific about the type of crowd they will reach. Paint your demographic for them as that is what they’ll want to know.
Now that you understand what the camps are considering and what goes into the type of format or forum, and you’ve checked with those involved, you should know the different formats that are most effective. Again, you’ll want to select the one that interests your audience, accommodates the candidate, and fits the candidate’s schedule.
Types of Candidates Forums
- Cocktail hour. This format involves the candidates mingling over cocktails with community members, answering questions in a very casual atmosphere. It works well for local candidates.
- Structured questions. Candidates get questions ahead of time in this forum. Everything is scripted. No questions are allowed from the audience. Every candidate gets the same questions and is not allowed to debate one another. This works well if you have multiple races present at one event (as in Congressional candidates and state rep candidates).
- Structured debate. Like structured questions where they receive the questions ahead of time, but in this format debate is allowed but in a very formal way. There is not a back and forth between the candidates. Instead, the questions are asked by a moderator and time is given to answer each one before moving onto the opposition. This is the format for many presidential debates.
- Townhall. The candidates take questions from the audience. These questions shouldn’t be scripted. Some camps use plants in order to focus the conversation on topics they want to come up. You can eliminate this possibility by choosing your questioners prior to the event.
- Direct debate (candidate to candidate). There are very few campaigns that will agree to direct debate where each candidate squares off directly and answers each other’s questions. Things can become contentious but when you remove the moderator (or limit the moderator’s role) they also get very real.
Additionally, you can organize any of these forums around a specific topic like increasing sales tax or some other concern your members and community may have.
Navigating the Pitfalls of Political Discourse
As mentioned earlier, unless your audience is extremely homogeneous, many chambers are concerned about “stirring the pot” and alienating people. Here are a few things you can do to keep that from happening:
- Make it about the issues, not the candidates. Focus on topics that are good for business. That’s something everyone in your group has in common.
- Use the forum as a way to educate the voter and avoid endorsements if you fear they’ll be divisive.
- Give everyone the same. Give them the same amount of time to speak, the same courtesy, the same allowances, the same rules in debating, etc.
- Share information between camps. Make sure you give all candidates the same information. If something changes, make sure everyone knows. If one camp asks a question the other could benefit from, pass that info along.
- Set your rules early and in print. Try to cover all of your bases before the event. That way no one can accuse you of making an arbitrary decision in favor of the other candidate.
Now that you know how to avoid the common pitfalls with Meet the Candidatess events, when should you consider a chamber endorsement and what should factor into that decision?
Common Questions About Chamber Political Endorsements
The following questions are commonly asked among chamber professionals who are considering endorsements and what they mean for their chamber.
Do you need a PAC to endorse a candidate?
You don’t need a PAC to simply endorse a candidate. If you were donating money, a PAC might be advisable but you need to check with a tax advisor about what that would mean for your chamber tax status.
Is it a conflict of interest if you have an elected official on your board?
This largely depends on the board member’s voting rights but since endorsements will be based on the candidate’s business rating, it’s much less subjective than you would assume. Plus, the board won’t vote on endorsements. They should follow a grading metric based on the candidates’ pro-business stances.
Do you have to endorse in every race?
If there’s not a candidate that fits your pro-business ideals, don’t endorse. Candidates should want the chamber endorsement as it could mean member votes. If you throw endorsements around, it will lose its exclusive status.
Shouldn’t the chamber be non-partisan?
Endorsing a candidate doesn’t make you partisan. If you have a list of things you look for in a candidate, publish that (in some form. Doesn’t have to be a list; could be a statement.) so that people understand what constitutes a chamber endorsement. Generally, you’re looking for someone who supports business in the community but there may be other qualifications too.
Managing the Details of the Event
Finally, a Meet the Candidates Night is going to require all of the same detail handling that other events do:
- food and beverage
- venue and decor
- tables (depending on the format)
- name tags
- RSVPs (even free events should require an RSVP so you know approximately how many will be in attendance)
- an agenda
- marketing and reminders
But you might also want to consider additions such as
- Live video so those who can’t attend can watch
- Monitoring social media so you can ask questions from the “home” audience
- a good attitude about providing a much-needed resource for your community. Figuring out how candidates stand on certain issues can be confusing for the average person. Coming at it from a business perspective helps bypass partisanship.
- Follow-ups. Send attendees contact information for all of the candidates and thank them for attending. Also, offer to pass along any questions they may have. Send the candidates thank you cards as well as any unofficial polling you may have done or commentary on the issues you received.
There are a lot of moving pieces when coordinating a Meet the Candidates night but providing access to these important leaders is something your members can’t likely do on their own. The chamber is a well-respected group. Candidates want to meet their constituents and the chamber makes an excellent facilitator for that to happen. Make sure you give them plenty of date options in advance.