Start now to craft fresh, unorthodox election questions

Published April 4, 2024

By Jim Pumarlo, Newspaper Consultant

Attention newsrooms: It’s time to get serious about 2024 elections coverage. I hear the collective groan. The reaction is likely shaded by the strident national contests and their seemingly never-ending campaign cycles.

Community newspapers must toss aside the cynicism of the national political scene and focus on what they do best: Help readers make informed decisions at the polls, particularly for candidates seeking seats on city councils, school boards, county boards and other local elective offices. You are in excellent position to collect and present information in a clear, meaningful manner – all in the interest of advancing democracy.

Election coverage is a demanding responsibility, especially as many newsrooms deal with diminished resources. Every aspect is scrutinized – from candidate profiles and debate coverage to editorial endorsements and treatment of letters to the editor to how results are reported. The enormity of the task requires that staffs thoroughly plan all the elements of coverage. The better the organization, the easier it will be to handle the unexpected circumstances.

Candidate interviews are at the heart of substantive coverage. Each race has its specific issues. Many candidates will be prepped for the usual queries, often aided by written notes. Be attentive to their answers for appropriate follow-up.

But also think of unorthodox questions to force candidates to think on the spot and delve into territory not typically covered at the usual candidate forums. Avoid questions that cannot be answered by a simple “yes” or “no” without elaboration.

Here are some sample questions – the routine as well as others appropriate for individuals interviewing to be hired by the electorate.

What prompted you to seek office? Was it a personal initiative, or were you encouraged? By whom?

What are the most important issues, and how do you plan to address them?

Who do you identify as your base of support – specific demographics, organizations, special interests?

Who are the people most opposed to your candidacy, and how do you allay their concerns?

What is the chief strength and weakness of your opponent?

What are your strengths and weaknesses, and how will you compensate for your weaknesses?

What do you bring to the table that your opponent doesn’t?

How can you, as one vote, make a difference on a policy-making board?

How is your experience – or lack of experience – in the public and private sectors a plus or minus for the job?

Do you support term limits?

Do you agree with the philosophy that elected officials should enact broad policy and staff should handle daily administration? How do you approach this division of responsibilities?

You are elected to represent your constituency, yet at some point the collective wishes and beliefs likely will contradict your personal beliefs. How will you arrive at your vote?

What specific practices will you use to connect with constituents?

Does your employment restrict your ability to serve?

What one issue is not being talked about in this race that should be getting aired?

How will you address the partisanship that seems to have filtered into all levels of government?

Political observers routinely rate the U.S. president’s first 100 days in office. What can we expect from your first 100 days?

What is the government’s role in providing specific services?

Can government be more efficient by partnering in the delivery of services and programs? Identify some possibilities.

Do you advocate public-private partnerships? Identify some possibilities.

Your opponent is most critical of your stance on this issue. How do you respond?

Think of your particular community or constituency 20 years from now. What three things must be addressed now to make it better for our kids?

How will changing demographics affect public policy?

Address the balance of public policy necessary to satisfy both rural and urban constituencies.

How will you ensure government is run in open fashion?

Are there any state or national elected leaders, past or present, who you admire? Why?

Under what circumstances would you change your stance on a specific issue?

On whom will you rely for advice?

What will be the role of the people who contributed to your campaign?

What principles will guide your decisions?

At the end of your term, what do you hope people will say about you?

If interviewing a candidate for a profile: Who else do I need to interview?

What one question are you glad we didn’t ask? Are there any skeletons in your closet?

What didn’t I ask that you were expecting or hoping I would ask?

Do you have anything to add?

Always ask the standard questions as responses might be unexpected and enlightening: Why are you running?

Consider this response from a candidate seeking a spot on the county board. He leaned across the desk and stared at the editor, opening his mouth to reveal his many missing teeth. He then answered, “Dental insurance.”

You never know a candidate’s underlying reasons for seeking office.

Jim Pumarlo is former editor of the Red Wing (Minn.) Republican Eagle. He writes, speaks and provides training on community newsroom success strategies. He is author of “Journalism Primer: A Guide to Community News Coverage,” “Votes and Quotes: A Guide to Outstanding Election Coverage” and “Bad News and Good Judgment: A Guide to Reporting on Sensitive Issues in Small-Town Newspapers.” He can be reached at www.pumarlo.com and welcomes comments and questions at jim@pumarlo.com.