Hagle: What to ask your incumbent during campaign season


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Now that Congress has adjourned until after Election Day, the senators and representatives will return to their states and districts. In non-election years this would mean holding town-hall meetings and attending other events in which they can meet with the people they represent. In election years, it usually means an intense campaign period, particularly for members of the House of Representatives.

Although incumbents will be in campaign mode until Election Day, they will still likely attend events that provide opportunities for interested voters to speak with them about the issues. This can include small gatherings in someone’s home, forums held by interest groups, or more formal debates. Of course, challengers will also appear at similar events, but for now I’ll focus on incumbents.

Campaign events tend to be attended primarily by those who are supporters of the incumbent. The rally nature of most campaign events usually means opportunities to challenge the incumbent on some issue are quite limited. This is understandable from the candidates’ perspective. Even incumbents who would otherwise be happy to respond to critical questions might not want to do so during the heat of a campaign, because it can often result in negative media exposure. Thus, opponents of an incumbent’s policies may need to raise their concerns at events that take questions from the audience or they can hope the challenger in the race will raise those questions during the campaign.

Even those who generally agree with an incumbent may have concerns about issues that they wish to raise in a town-hall meeting or other forum. These could include substantive concerns about promises or campaign statements or the questions could be more process oriented. 

At a fundamental level, those unfamiliar with the incumbent should find out what the incumbent has been doing. Some incumbents are known for being an expert in a particular area. Find out if your incumbent has such expertise and then find out what he or she has done to advance policy positions in that area. Also find out what the incumbent has done for the people in the state or district.

Although “pork-barrel politics” is a negative term, the idea of bringing federal money back to the area is usually seen as a good thing by both incumbents and constituents.

In terms of process, Congress is often criticized as being ineffective. Those in the minority party often have a particularly difficult time getting legislation through their chamber. Thus, ask incumbents what they have done to reach out to members of the other party to work in a bipartisan fashion on various issues.

On the whole, the intensity of the last weeks of a campaign may not be the best time to ask hard questions and get straight answers. On the other hand, it’s also the time when incumbents should be most aware that they are accountable to the people. At the very least, the flurry of events as we approach Election Day provides many opportunities for voters to learn what incumbents have done and plan to do, and whether they deserve your vote.

Timothy Hagle
UI associate professor of political science

Follow on Twitter @ProfHagle

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