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Election Coverage: Reporting on the Campaign Trail

There’s nothing quite like a local election to rouse a community into a hotbed of discussion.  Reporters travel across the state following candidates to speaking and fundraising events. Politicos take every opportunity to offer opinion and analysis on the latest polls. And citizens are left to interpret political spin from actual fact in campaign advertisements that grow more and more frequent as Election Day draws near.

But there are creative ways to cover an election that go beyond the he-said, she-said mud-slinging and partisan bickering we so often hear about. We will go over a few of these methods in this tip sheet.  But you should be forewarned:  These ideas require more than simply quoting a press release. They require real citizen watchdogs willing to dig deep and do the research.

1. Find the dark horse candidate.
2. Keep an eye on campaign staff’s social media.
3. Take video wherever you go.
4. Expose pay-to-play endorsements.
5. Follow the money.
6. Analyze campaign ads.
7. Map out the demographics.

1. Find the dark horse candidate.
Have you ever gone to the polls and noticed a few extra candidate names on the ballot you’ve never heard of before? These are people who received enough signatures to appear on the ballot but receive little to no media coverage at all. Often times, they lack the finances and resources to run a full-fledged campaign but are very passionate about issues in the community. Why else would you run with little chance to win?

Find out who these underdogs are by contacting your local election office, and then reach out about scheduling a sit-down interview. Unlike front-runner candidates who hire communication directors and tend to be very selective about media appearances, the dark horse candidate is easily accessible. He or she will likely welcome your interview offer and the opportunity to share his or her policy positions. The key here is to find out WHY this candidate is running. Is he so fed up with a failed or insufficient government service that he decided to take matters into his own hands?  Is he a small business owner trying to ease up local regulations to make it easier to stay in business?  Find the angle and run with it.

2. Keep an eye on campaign staff’s social media.
In this fast-paced world of instant communication, every campaign worker likely owns a smart phone with access to social media. Candidates and staffers love to tweet out which district they are visiting on any particular day and post photos on Facebook of local parades and charity events. Follow them on social media if you can stomach all the self-promotion. If you monitor regularly, I guarantee someone will screw up. A low-level staffer will accidentally tweet about a meeting that was supposed to remain private, a quote that was supposed to be off-the-record, or about the candidate having too much to drink at the office one night. Never underestimate the power of over-sharing on social media.

Note: Three Congressional staffers for Rep. Rick Larsen, a Democrat from Washington State, were fired after making inappropriate comments on Twitter about drinking alcohol in the office. Their embarrassing antics made national news.

3. Take video wherever you go.
There is no shortage of events during campaign season– rallies, protests, fundraisers, debates, meet-and-greets, etc. The traditional press will likely be at these events filming the candidates and hanging on their every word. But often times the people who attend these events are just as important as the main speaker. Stick around long enough to see how the candidate interacts with the public once the mainstream media reporters have left the building. How does he treat wait staff, security officers, bloggers, or even small children?  Note:  See the infamous incident when Congressman Bob Etheridge was caught on tape assaulting college students when asked a simple question.

If the event is just politics as usual, try doing man-on-the-street interviews to get crowd reactions about the candidate. Be sure to ask citizens what city or district they are from, and how they heard about the event. Sometimes activist or partisan groups will bus in people from another county or district to fill the room if they have a vested interest in a specific candidate getting elected in a neighboring area. If that’s the case, you want to expose the true residency of the attendees and question whether or not the candidate has any legitimate support from his own district.

4. Expose pay-to-play endorsements.
It seems like every week of a campaign, a new public figure or special interest group is giving their official “endorsement” of one candidate or another. It’s a lot of pomp and circumstance to try and convince voters who has the most supporters in their political camp. But these public declarations often come with a price tag or a promise from the candidate to pass legislation or rulings in favor of the group.

These unspoken arrangements can be difficult to prove. Start by looking at the group’s reasons for endorsement. Are they based on principle and a set of standards outlined by the group? Or do they only list quotes and promises made by the candidate? Advocacy groups know by now that candidates don’t always follow through with campaign promises. They need proof of past performance or aligned votes in order to give their official blessing. If the candidate doesn’t have a proven track record and the group still gives an endorsement, that should raise a red flag for you to start investigating.

Note:  Public unions are notorious for giving support with strings attached. Find out if the candidate plans to increase teacher salaries to appease the teachers union or extend a public labor contract for the city. Read about this NJ “cash for contracts” violation.

5. Follow the money.
Behind every good candidate are a few good donors. Campaigns don’t exist without funding. And every dollar must be accounted for and recorded in a campaign finance report. This is especially helpful for an incumbent running for re-election. They have more public records on file that may be eligible for a FOIA request. Find out which people and corporations are giving. See if there are any conflicts of interest or ethics violations. Start your research with the Federal Election Commission in their disclosure data search feature. You should also look into FollowTheMoney.org, a database run by the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

Note:  Read this story about former Florida State Representative Keith Fitzgerald, who was accused of an ethics violation.

6. Analyze campaign ads.
It’s all about the advertising. Campaigns know that message repetition is necessary in order for voters to recognize a candidates’ name when they go to the polls. A lot of time, money, and strategy is put into researching the best outlet (radio, print, TV) to advertise a specific candidate. If you keep track of where and when these ads are running, it could make a very interesting analysis piece.

Some questions to ask:  Are the ads consistent? Does the candidate communicate the same message to each targeted group, or does he change his tone and angle depending on who’s watching? What tone is the candidate trying to establish—hopeful, serious, family-oriented? Which news stations are getting the most air time?

7. Map out the demographics.
Every voter-base is different, especially on the local level. Campaign strategists spend a lot of time assessing the demographic make-up of a city or district in order to try and predict voting habits.  There are many variables in a community to consider like crime statistics, unemployment rates, student test scores, property value, etc. All of these factors play a role in the political climate. Pick one and do a “city snapshot” on that particular issue. For example, if a candidate is focusing his campaign platform on reducing crime and reducing racial tensions, you could do an in-depth analysis of racial breakdown by neighborhood and how it correlates with crime. PolicyMap.com is an online mapping tool that will help you hone in on the demographics you choose to highlight.

Mary Ellen Beatty

Director of the Citizen Watchdog program. Contact me at MaryEllen@citizenwatchdog.com

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