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Civil Dialogue in an Election Year

Engaging with Candidates

March 25, 2016

Engaging with candidates is an important part of relationship-building, a theme that carries through much of FCNL’s advocacy work. Candidates running for state office or Congress can be particularly accessible to their potential constituents.

Person holds a microphone and speaks in the middle of a crowd

A Spring Lobby Weekend participant asks a question.

What does it mean to be an active participant in our democracy?

Exercising — and protecting — the right to vote is part of the answer. Voting is an essential way to hold elected officials accountable and have input on who represents you in government. But, while voting is necessary for democracy, it isn’t enough.

Democracy is happening every day, in the way you effectively share your views and build relationships with your elected leaders. It is also happening in the way you engage with the candidates, now, during the election season, so that your concerns can influence their agendas going forward.

Between now and November 8, Election Day, candidates are working to secure your vote. They’re auditioning, if you will, for the role of your representative, senator, or president. They want to convince you that they are the best candidates for the job — and that gives you opportunities to share with the candidates what matters to you. They’re listening. What are they hearing from you?

Whether you ask a question at a small house party, at a large rally, through social media, or in a letter to the editor, it matters that you express your point of view. Your questions, taken together with the other interactions the candidates have on the campaign trail, influence their views of the electorate and what will be expected of them if or when they take office. It helps others in your community to consider the issues you raise.

As a nonpartisan organization, FCNL does not endorse candidates or make recommendations on who you should vote for. We encourage you to use the information you gather from candidates, through their response to your and others’ questions, to make an informed decision about which candidates align with your views and values.

In an election season where insults, vitriol, and polarization feed the media, the way you ask your question takes on particular importance. We hope you'll approach candidates with a listening ear and an inquisitive heart. Rather than trying to trap the candidates into an embarrassing admission or unfortunate phrase, we encourage you to model the kind of civil dialogue that we strive for in all our interactions. We ask candidates how they will support diplomacy, oppose violence, and work across the aisle to make difficult decisions about our country’s future. Our interactions with the candidates can model the values of respect and peaceful dialogue.

Engaging with candidates is also an important part of relationship-building, a theme that carries through much of FCNL’s advocacy work. Candidates running for state office or Congress can be particularly accessible to their potential constituents. We encourage you to take advantage of that access to ask questions, share what matters to you, and start a relationship that you can build on after Election Day.

Action Steps

Writing Letters to the Candidates

Write your own letters to candidates and consider organizing a collective letter from influential people in your community. While you may or may not get a response to your question, your letter will let the candidate know that people in his or her area are concerned about a particular issue and want to see it addressed. Find out who's running in your area, and send a letter.

Writing Letters to the Editor

Publishing a letter to the editor ensures that the campaign and your community will hear your point of view. Include the names of the candidates in your letter to increase the chances that they will see it. Please let us know if your letter is published! You can send a copy to letterstotheeditor@fcnl.org.

Meeting Candidates in Person

  • If you’re able to attend a candidate forum or speak to a candidate directly, you may have only a few minutes to ask a question.
  • Check candidate websites or call their campaign offices to find out when candidates are holding public events.
  • Decide ahead of time what question you want to ask. Practice saying it out loud.
  • Ask a question that reaches past the rhetoric to get to a candidate’s perspective on an issue and that gives an idea of why you are concerned about this issue.
  • Listen carefully to the answer the candidate gives. Remember that in some cases you may be educating the candidate about an issue just by asking the question.
  • Thank the candidate for his or her response.
  • Get more ideas in our bird-dogging guide.

Using Social Media

Many candidates are active on Facebook, Twitter and other forms of social media, and their campaigns monitor these sites closely to gauge what people are saying. You could post a question on a candidate’s Facebook wall or tweet the question to them directly. Following candidates on social media is also a good way to find out about public events they will be attending.

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