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How to Judge a Candidate

How to Judge a Candidate

Elections up and down the ballot present voters with important choices. Whether it is a local race that will affect your community or a national race that could change the direction of the country, elections are a time to consider the issues that you care about and decide which candidate you support. 

But is it possible to move beyond campaign ads, social media chatter, and noisy news cycles to find the best substantive candidate who represents your values and needs? The answer is yes! 

7 Steps for Judging Candidates 

The seven steps outlined here are designed to help you judge and choose the best candidate for you in the next election. Downloadable resources are also available below.  

Step 1: Determine what you are looking for in a candidate. 

You can judge candidates in two ways: the positions they take on issues, and the leadership qualities and experience they would bring to the office. Your first step in picking a candidate is to decide the issues you care about and the qualities you want in a leader. 

When you consider issues, what community, state or national problems do you want people in government to address? For example, you may be interested in national security, government funding for student loans, or climate change.  

When you consider leadership qualities, what characteristics do you think make an effective elected official? Do you look for intelligence, honesty, humility, an ability to communicate? What else? 

After considering which issues and qualities are most important to you in this year’s election, record them on the Candidate Report Card shared below.  

Step 2: Visit VOTE411.org and learn about the candidates on your ballot. 

Find out which candidates are running in your area by using the League’s online election resource VOTE411.org. When you input your address, VOTE411 shows you all the races and candidates on your ballot. 

VOTE411 also includes information about each office on your ballot, candidate background information, stances on issues directly from the candidates themselves, and extensive background and explanations on ballot questions. 

Step 3: Gather materials about the candidates. 

Research and collect information about the candidates. Read their positions on their campaign website, watch media coverage and online discussions, check out their stances on VOTE411. Sources of information you may choose to review include: 

  • VOTE411.org candidate stances 

  • Direct mail letters, flyers, and postcards 

  • Media coverage 

  • Online, radio, and television ads 

  • Candidate endorsements by individuals, organizations, and news outlets 

  • Candidates’ speeches 

  • Candidate debates 

  • Online candidate forums and town hall events 

Step 4: Evaluate candidates’ positions on issues. 

In a local race, interviews with the candidates can be helpful. For incumbents, a look at their voting records on issues important to you (which you identified in Step 1) can also tell you a lot.  

Ask yourself the following questions: 

  • Does your collected information give you an overall impression of the candidates?  

  • What specific conclusions can you draw about the candidates’ positions on issues?  

  • Record what you have learned about where they stand on your priority issues from each source you review in Step 3.  

Fill in the Candidate Report Card shared below as you gather new information about the candidates.  

Step 5: Learn about the candidates’ leadership abilities. 

Deciding if a candidate will be a good leader is difficult. How can you know if someone will be honest, open, or able to act under pressure if elected to office? Here are some ways to read between the lines:  

  • Look at the candidates’ background and their experience. How prepared are they for the job? 

  • Observe the candidates’ campaigns. Do they give speeches to different groups (even those groups that may disagree with them)? Do they accept invitations to debate? Do the campaigns emphasize media events, where the candidates can be seen but not heard? (For instance, a candidate is seen cutting ribbons to open new bridges rather than going on record about transportation and infrastructure challenges.) 

  • Review the campaign website, social media content, and materials. As you watch the campaign develop, consider information that provides insights into candidates’ personalities and leadership qualities. For example, do campaign materials emphasize issues or nice images? Do materials paint a true picture of a situation? Add this information to the Candidate Report Card shared below. 

Step 6: Learn how other people view the candidate. 

Other people’s opinions can help clarify your own views, but do not discount your own informed judgments.  

  • Seek the opinions of others in your community who are affected differently by decisions of political leadership. Talk to people of diverse backgrounds and positions, such as a person of a different race than you, a teacher, a member of the business community, an Indian tribe member, or a sexual or gender minority person to find out which candidate they support and why.  

  • Learn about endorsements. Endorsements provide clues to the issues a candidate supports. For instance, a candidate endorsed by the Sierra Club (an environmental organization) will be in favor of legislation that protects the environment. A candidate endorsed by the National Rifle Association would be opposed to gun control laws. Get a list of endorsements from each of the candidates’ campaign websites. Find out what these groups stand for and find out why they are endorsing this candidate. 

  • Look into campaign contributions. Where do the candidates get the funds to finance their campaigns? Do they use their own money or raise funds from a few wealthy donors, from many small contributors, or from Political Action Committees? (PACs, as they are known, are groups formed to raise and distribute money to candidates without disclosing individual donor names.) Many types of information about campaign contributions must be reported to the government and are watched by the press, so the information is relatively easy to find. Check your local newspaper for stories on campaign finance or go to www.opensecrets.org.  

Step 7: Use the Candidate Report Card to evaluate your options. 

Review the information in your Candidate Report Card  to compare all the candidates. Ask yourself these final questions: 

  • Which candidate’s views on the issues do I agree with the most? 

  • Who ran the fairest campaign? 

  • Which candidate demonstrated the most knowledge on the issues? 

  • Which candidate has the leadership qualities I am looking for? 

Is the choice clear? If so, pick a candidate.  

Other Considerations

Avoid Distortion Techniques 

Candidates try to sell themselves to voters, but they can sometimes distort the truth in ways that are difficult to detect. Here are seven examples of distortion techniques that you should watch for as you review candidates’ campaign materials: 

  • Name-calling/Appeals to prejudice: Accusations such as, “My opponent is arrogant and full of hot air,” do not give any real information about the candidate. Reference to race, ethnicity, or marital status can be subtly used to instill prejudice. 

  • Rumor mongering: These include statements such as “Everyone says my opponent is a crook, but I have no personal knowledge of any wrongdoing,” which imply (but do not state) that the opponent is guilty. 

  • Guilt by associations: These are statements such as “We all know Candidate B is backed by big money interests,” which attack candidates because of their supporters rather than because of their stands on the issues. 

  • Catchwords: These are phrases such as “Law and Order” or “un-American,” designed to trigger a knee-jerk emotional reaction rather than to inform. 

  • Passing the blame: These are instances in which a candidate denies responsibility for an action or blames an opponent for things over which they had no control. 

  • Promising the sky: These are unrealistic promises that no elected official could fulfill on their own.  

  • Evading real issues: These include instances in which candidates may avoid answering direct questions, offer only vague solutions, or talk about the benefits of proposed programs but never get specific about possible problems or costs.  

Evaluate Candidates’ Use of Video  

Candidates are aware of the potential power of video and try to use it to their advantage. When you see videos about a candidate or that feature the candidate, consider that the picture you see may be staged by a media advisor whose job is to make the candidate look good on camera. As you watch news coverage of campaigns, be aware of staged events (also known as photo opportunities) and try to instead focus on what the candidate is saying about the issues. 

The same applies to political advertisements on television or online. When you watch political ads, be aware of how the medium influences your reactions. Ask yourself: Did you find out anything about issues or qualifications, or was the ad designed only to affect your attitude or feelings about a candidate?  

Now Take Action

  • Back the candidates you believe in. 

  • Talk to your friends and family about “your” candidates. 

  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions at candidate meetings, debates, or rallies or when a campaign worker rings your doorbell. 

  • Write letters. Tell candidates, newspapers, and party leaders how you feel about the issues. 

  • Volunteer to work on a campaign or make a donation. 

  • Register to vote. 

  • Make a voting plan. 

  • Vote by mail, absentee, or in person before or on Election Day. 

Candidate Report Card

My Priority Issues

My Position 

Candidate A 

Candidate B 

Candidate C 

Example:  

health care  

I support universal health care. 

  

  

  

1. 

  

  

  

  

2. 

  

  

  

  

3. 

  

  

  

  

4. 

  

  

  

  

Desired  Leadership Qualities 

My Position 

Candidate A 

Candidate B 

Candidate C 

Example:  

Honesty 

I want a candidate who bases issue positions on facts and data. 

  

  

  

1. 

  

  

  

  

2. 

  

  

  

  

3. 

  

  

  

  

4. 

  

  

  

  

My Candidate Choice: ___________________________________________________________