Monday, April 24, 2006

Evaluating Candidates

There are a lot of ways to evaluate a candidate and decide whether or not to vote for him or her. Certainly party affiliation plays the largest role for most people. Aside from that, you want to see where their money is coming from, and keep watch on their campaign finance reports, how they stand on issues, and so forth. If they’re already in office you want to see how they vote and what bills they suppor, how much time they spend in the home district and who they spend it with, and so forth. If you are active in the community you will know, from direct experience or from others, how responsive the official / candidate is to local interests and concerns. It is harder to evaluate someone who isn’t currently in office or has never held office before.

Candidates can talk about issues, sometimes vaguely sometimes specifically, sometimes taking both sides. Issue positions are a popular way of evaluating candidates. You certainly want someone in office who is going to vote for and against legislation that you do or do not like. However, once people get into office they are faced, daily, with a myriad of decisions. There are vote swaps, bills so overburdened with pork or amendments that even if the basic idea is a good one, the entire bill is offensive. Sometimes events beyond anyone’s control force a shift in priorities. No matter what someone’s priorities were on Sept. 10, 2001, they were different on Sept. 12th. Officials have to navigate a minefield, while simultaneously being pursued by lobbyists and party bosses. A candidate may not have the wherewithal to survive the atmosphere. I like to try to discern their character. Will they make what they think is the best decision, even if it means that an issue I like may be temporarily sacrificed? Can I develop a level of trust sufficient to think they are honest and know what they are doing? How to decide such things?

If possible, I go out and see candidates and officials, see them, hear them, smell them (although in a post 9/11 world leaning in to sniff people is frowned upon). At a political event you can usually get between 30 and 90 seconds of time with a candidate, depending on how many people are there. An experienced candidate has an internal clock, ticking away your time, before they graciously move on to the next person.

There are certain criteria I used to weigh their character, and try to observe a candidate a number of times, because everyone has good and bad days, to see how they interact with a variety of audiences in various settings. Here are some key tests I employ.

The Utility Test
Regardless of how useful I think I may be to a candidate or official, when I meet them for the first time I take a very low profile and keep credentials to a minimum. Why? Because no matter how useful I may be at any given time, there will come a day when I am obsolete or replaced. Maybe I'll make a mistake, maybe the cause du jour will come to nothing. I want to know how this person treats those who they think are of no particular interest. If possible I try to see how they act towards staff and, if we are in a setting with food, those who prepare or serve, waitresses and the like. They don't have to be obsequious but they do have to be civil. Politeness is a plus. If everyone is given a modicum of respect then I can expect to be awarded the same, regardless of whatever situation may arise. If we find ourselves on opposite sides of an issue I can expect a basic level of behavior. My calls are likely to be returned. My concerns heard if not always acted upon.

The Staff and Supporters Test
A person who has a high level of expectation for themselves is likely to hire staff with similar behaviors. You seldom see an ethical, efficient, and engaged politician with a sloppy staff. If you do, chances are the hires are patronage hires and the official is beholden to a powerbroker or party boss somewhere. While all candidates have to constantly troll for money, most will have a core of loyal supporters. See if these are local people or special interests. Talk to others who attend an event. What kind of people are they? The character of candidates is sometimes also reflected in the character of their supporters.

The Motivation Test
One key skill that can be a big help to an elected official is the ability to persuade people to do things they may not want to do, to involve people in a cause, or in their community, to get people who don’t like each other to talk. I have seen extremely skilled politicians getting people involved in issues or organizations in ways that the person would never have expected. It's not a necessity but someone who can do this has a rare gift and one that can be invaluable to those in office.

The Rope Test
My mother's basic judge of character is to ask this: If you were dangling over a cliff and hanging on to a rope, would you want this person to be holding the other end of the rope? It's a good question. I've known politicians that I respected overall but if they had been holding the other end of the rope I would have made sure I had a parachute strapped on my back or at least a tube of neosporin in my pocket for all the cuts and bruises I would get after they let go. Sometimes I wouldn't want the official holding the rope but would trust their staff. As long as you know what you are getting into you can be prepared. It's when you misjudge that you get into trouble.

It is important to look at policy positions, campaign finance reports, press releases, votes, and the like, but it is also important to look at the person. If you find someone you can trust, you can skip a campaign finance report now and then and feel comfortable that if he or she didn’t vote the way you like on an issue, there is probably a good reason for it, even if you never know what that reason is.


Anonymous said...

Let me add "the bar tab test". I know this probably sounds silly, but I've noticed that people who, no matter how high a position they hold, will toss a $20 on the bar or buy a round for the lesser lights around them are usually pretty good folks.

Observe your friends or aquaintances sometime when you're at a bar and test out my theory.

Anonymous said...

i've found it invigorating meeting so many politicians in the last year or so while attending tons of events. seeing them out there only motivates me to do the same, meet more of them. good ones and bad ones.

a microcosm of all this is at Drinking Liberally in Center City. you learn quite a bit about a candidate when they show up there. do they have an entourage? do they simply shake hands and pass out lit and then leave? do they stick around? do they sit down and have a drink with you, a full meal? do they close down the event with you? do they remember you the next time [not necessarily your name, but some part of the conversation]?

AboveAvgJane said...

Phillydem, not silly at all. It sounds like you, Albert, and I have similar views -- how a candidate treats people matters.