Tips on asking right questions to presidential candidates

Tuesday October 16, 2012

Town-hall forums allow a few undecided voters the chance to ask presidential candidates their own question. If you are ever lucky enough to be picked, here are some tips for asking a good one.

Keep it to the point

Like callers on radio shows, voters at town-hall forums sometimes overexplain themselves. The candidates are fully versed in the issues, so you don’t need to give too much detail. That also risks giving them an opening to duck the question. Instead, keep your question short and to the point.

"Mr. President, if there were a vacancy in the Supreme Court and you had the opportunity to fill that position today, who would you choose and why?"
-- Jonathan Michaelson at the 2004 town hall

Use your background
to frame the question

Candidates have plenty of practice sparring with re porters, but the town-hall format forces them to respond to everyday voters. Use your biographical background to put the issues into focus. It’s harder for a candidate to answer a question about un employment when talking to a voter without a job, for example.

"Mr. President, my mother and sister traveled abroad this summer, and when they got back they talked to us about how shocked they were at the intensity of aggravation that other countries had with how we handled the Iraq situa tion. Diplomacy is obviously something that we really have to really work on. What is your plan to repair relations with other countries given the current situation?" -- Nikki Washington at the 2004 town hall

Do your homework

The best questions at town-hall forums come from voters who really understand the issues they’re asking about. Avoid asking general questions that are too easy for the candidates to answer with boilerplate. Instead, do some reading on the major issues that you want to ask about so that you can ask a more pointed question.

"Should the United States respect Pakistani sovereignty and not pursue al Qaeda terrorists who maintain bases there, or should we ignore their borders and pursue our enemies like we did in Cambodia during the Vietnam War?" -- Katie Hamm at the 2008 town hall

Use strong language
to make your point

Voters sometimes worry that they need to be careful with their language and phrase their questions using high-minded platitudes. Skip the fancy language and make your point using blunt and even colorful language. (But don’t swear!) It will be harder for the candidates to avoid answering if you do.

"Since World War II, we have never been asked to sacrifice anything to help our country, except the blood of our heroic men and women. As president, what sacrifices will you ask every American to make to help restore the American dream and to get out of the economic morass that we’re now in?" -- Fiora from Chicago, at the 2008 town hall

"Senator Kerry, you’ve stated your concern for the rising cost of health care, yet you chose a vice presidential candidate who has made millions of dollars successfully suing medical professionals. How do you reconcile this with the voters?" -- Norma-Jean Laurent at the 2004 town hall

Ask about their weaknesses

Candidates have topics that they love to discuss, especially the ones that favor them and hurt their opponent. So use your chance to ask a question they’d rather not talk about. Pick a topic where they’ve been criticized or had to change their position to see how they handle a tough question.

"Senator Kerry, after talking with several co-workers and family and friends, I asked the ones who said they were not voting for you, ‘Why?’ They said that you were too wishy-washy. Do you have a reply for them?" -- Cheryl Otis at the 2004 town hall

Get philosophical

During the course of a year-long campaign, candidates are asked lots of questions they expect about the major issues of the day. They have held town hall forums, chatted with reporters and prepped for the debates. Sometimes the best way to learn how they think is to ask an unexpected philosophical question.

"President Bush, during the last four years, you have made thousands of decisions that have affected millions of lives. Please give three instances in which you came to realize you had made a wrong decision, and what you did to correct it." -- Linda Grabel at the 2004 town hall


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