A forum held at National Park Community College on Oct. 16, 2018, intended to provide the opportunity for candidates running for office for the 2018 Midterm Elections engage with voters and answer questions related to their platforms/issues relevant to voters.
Problems and Purpose
Voter turnout for the 2018 Midterm Elections was the highest in history as the United States roils in extreme political divisions between conservatives and liberals. Against this backdrop, National Park Community College, in partnership with Democratic candidate Hayden Shamel, running for Arkansas’ district four U.S. House of Representatives, against incumbent Republican Bruce Westerman, organized a public forum for the two candidates, in addition to other candidates for various offices, to engage with voters. The event was billed as a time when voters could ask candidates about issues important to them while allowing candidates more time to interface with citizens before early voting began in late October to try to clarify their platforms and sway voters their way.
Background History and Context
A 2014 report from the Pew Research Center found that America has become more divided along partisan lines over the past few years than at any other time over the past two decades. “Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines – and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive – than at any point in the last two decades,” the 2014 report said (“Political Polarization in the American Public”, para. 1).
In the run-up to the 2016 presidential elections, that polarization arguably increased. In 2018, the divisiveness only continues to deepen. Against this backdrop, it appears that it is difficult, if not impossible, to bring both sides to the table to reach any type of mutual understanding. Rhetoric, coming directly from the Oval Office, is only stoking the fires of hate, violence and general disagreement. According to the Washington Post, there were more hate crimes carried out in the U.S. in 2016 than in 2015, which also had a record number of hate crimes compared to the previous year (Berman, 2017, para. 2).
This case study is particularly relevant because the forum, done in a variation of a classic debate style, and intended to engage voters, represents perhaps an outdated form of public engagement. As Nabatchi and Leighninger note, “conventional processes and structures for public participation are almost completely useless” in a day and age of distrust and divisiveness among citizens (2015, p. 3). The authors add that “conventional processes and structures for public participation” (Nabatchi & Leighninger, 2015, p. 3) appear to “be making things worse” (Nabatchi & Leighninger, 2015, p. 3).
This public forum, and its organization, is worthy of analysis in how it functioned, how the public participated and how it potentially could have been improved to bring more people to the table to share their interests and engage with candidates running for political office.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The candidate forum was organized and funded by Hayden Shamel for Arkansas, Fifty for the Future, Farm Bureau and National Park Community College.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
The 2018 Midterm Candidate Forum was open to the public. Recruitment was done mainly via social media, in particular, the Facebook pages of National Park College and of Hayden Shamel, the Democratic Congressional candidate representing Arkansas’ district four. Approximately 100 – 150 citizens attended the event, which lasted about 45 minutes. Anecdotal observation (i.e. audience response, such as applause, to Democratic candidates vs. Republican candidates) indicated the attendees may have been skewed towards a more left-leaning bias.
Nabatchi and Leighninger (2015) discuss how the recruitment technique of “broadcasting announcement through the media” (2015, p. 247) will likely result in “voluntary self- selection” (Nabatchi & Leighninger, 2015, p. 246). As Nabatchi and Leighninger point out, this strategy for participant recruitment most often leads to “participation bias” (Nabatchi and Leighninger, 2015, p. 247), meaning the profiles of those attending the event usually are not representative of the political, demographic, ideological or other views of the overall community.
The broadcasting technique most closely resembles the strategy employed by the organizers of the Candidate Forum to recruit participants; the result of the use of this technique indicates a voluntary self-selecting process by which many of the audience members were most likely liberal voters (as indicated by anecdotal observation) – a sample that is not representative of a region of the state of Arkansas that is predominantly Republican.
Methods and Tools Used
Participants were given a program before the forum. It listed the order in which the candidates would appear and answer questions randomly drawn from a bowl on stage in front of the audience. It took place in an auditorium. A number of candidates running for different offices were invited to attend. A moderator explained that the order of candidates was randomly selected via draw and that questions would be randomly selected via drawing them from the bowl on stage. Candidates sat in the front row of the auditorium, walking up on stage to answer questions when called by the moderator.
Candidates would have three minutes to respond to a question. The moderator outlined additional rules, including civility between candidates, with any personal attacks resulting in penalties, such as loss of time to respond to questions. The moderator said that audience members would have the opportunity to ask questions of the candidates, time permitting. In the end, audience members were not asked for any input during the 45-minute long event.
The format of the forum/debate could best be described as “conventional participation” (Nabatchi & Leighninger, 2015, p. 21). This type of participation usually includes an audience-style room setup, with lawmakers or other decision-makers behind a table, sometimes on a stage, in front of participants, sitting in rows of chairs (Nabatchi & Leighninger, 2015). It includes a preset agenda and sometimes a public comment segment (Nabatchi & Leighninger, 2015).
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
As discussed, candidates were given three minutes to answer questions, randomly selected from a bowl on stage by a moderator. The questions concerned issues related to new ballot measures proposed for Arkansas during the 2018 midterms and to the candidates’ stance on issues, like immigration and healthcare reform. While the moderator noted during the forum that it was running ahead of schedule, and that if extra time were available, audience members could pose questions to the candidates, no citizens were ever asked to engage with those running for office.
Candidates running for minor offices, such as county judge, were asked one question each. While candidates running for bigger races, such as U.S. House of Representatives, were asked two to three questions. A number of Republican candidates did not attend. It is not clear whether debate organizers were informed that they would not be able to make it. At one point, the moderator explained that two of the candidates were running late from a previous event. Those two candidates never came. Hayden Shamel’s opponent, the incumbent Republican Bruce Westerman, representing Arkansas’ district four House seat since 2015, failed to appear. After the forum ended, candidates who attended greeted attendees in a reception area outside of the auditorium.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
There is little evidence that this forum influenced the elections or served to change voters’ minds concerning who they would cast their ballot for on 2018 Midterm Election Day. It is also unclear whether it served to bridge any ideological or political divides between liberals and conservatives. Democratic challenger Hayden Shamel made some inroads against Bruce Westerman in a couple of counties in Arkansas’ district four, but she still lost the race by a substantial margin. Due to time constraints for analysis of this event, audience members were not interviewed, so it is unclear whether the forum had any influence on voting outcomes. All Republican candidates – whether they participated in the event or did not show up – won their respective races.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
The electoral process can be considered an element of public participation. Candidates running for office interface with voters/constituents, engaging in debate, listening and adapting policies or platforms to meet the needs of those they are elected to serve. Nabatchi and Leighninger (2015), however, argue that the electoral process has failed as a form of participation infrastructure. They write that “electoral campaigns rarely seem to engage citizens, other than to ask them for their votes and their money” (Nabatchi & Leighninger, 2015, p. 8). The authors write further: “So when they vote, citizens are selecting among candidate platforms that they did not help create, may not understand, and largely will not be able to affect after the election” (Nabatchi, Becker & Leighninger, 2015 as cited in Nabatchi & Leighninger, 2015, p. 8).
Working from the above framework, and from the broad issue of extreme polarization in American politics as well as what Nabatchi and Leighninger (2015) deem as the ineffectiveness of conventional participation infrastructure frameworks, there are a number of options organizers of this candidate forum could have considered to improve its efficacy. While not foolproof, it appears a more complex strategy for public participation, bi-partisan engagement and effective deliberative formats could have been employed.
It appears that little, to no, effort was made to reach across the aisle, so to speak, to try to engage not only more conservatives living in and around the community of Hot Springs but also to engage conservative candidates. Nabatchi and Leighninger write that public forums and citizen engagement are often seen as a liberal affair, turning off more conservative voters who do not feel comfortable in spaces where “equality, concerned for the disenfranchised, and appeals to consensus and community” (2015, p. 296) might be a focal point. Why did Republican candidates not come? Why did the audience anecdotally appear to be majority liberal citizens and not conservatives?
There must be some flaw with how organizers engaged opposing sides, how opposing sides perceived the event, recruitment of participants and why they ultimately decided not to participate. Advocating for “stronger participation should be couched in both progressive and conservative ways ((Nabatchi & Leighninger, 2015, p. 296). The authors argue that participatory events should be described “in ways that invite responses and prescriptions from all political parties across the ideological spectrum” (Nabatchi & Leighninger, 2015, p. 296).
Aside from the possible failure of creating a more inclusive debate whereby conservatives felt compelled as stakeholders to attend, there are areas to analyze with the format of the event itself. Not only is it important for organizers to consider the incentives that “might compel [participants] to engage” (Nabatchi & Leighninger, 2015, p. 246) but to consider the fact that many citizens do not attend such events because they simply do not think they are worth attending. The authors write that “the vast majority of people stay home” (Nabatchi & Leighninger, 2015, p. 243) when it comes to participatory governance events.
“People who have been part of conventional processes often have scars from their experiences,” the authors write (Nabatchi & Leighninger, 2015, p. 242). They continue: “... getting involved ... does not provide them with what they want... why should they participate?” (Nabatchi & Leighninger, 2015, p. 243). Those who did attend did not, after all, have the chance to ask any questions.
It could be surmised that those who did not attend, including Republican candidates, had prior negative experiences when attending similar events organized by the opposition, and felt that they might be attacked or otherwise misunderstood. As discussed, it is unclear whether this particular forum served to resolve any bipartisan divisions or to convince any voters to change their vote.
At the very least, the forum could have opted for “two-way communication” (Nabatchi & Leighninger, 2015, p. 248), allowing for citizens to engage with candidates so as to feel some investment in the process. Ideally, organizers could have considered a more deliberative format, maybe a series of events involving ad hoc, more spontaneous, less structured conversation whereby opposing sides were invested, thus feeling compelled to come to the table, talk and also listen.
Berman, M. (2017, November 13) Hate crimes in the United States increased last year, the FBI says. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2017/11/13/hate-crimes-in-the-united-states-increased-last-year-the-fbi-says/
Nabatchi, T. & Leighninger, M. (2015). Public Participation for 21st Century Democracy. Hoboken, New Jersey: Jossey-Bass.
Political Polarization in the American Public. (2014, June 12). Retrieved from http://www.people-press.org/2014/06/12/political-polarization-in-the-american-public/.
Because Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval was required to interview participants in this particular forum, and due to time constraints for analysis of the event, candidates and audience members were not interviewed before or after the forum, limiting the scope of analysis of this event to anecdotal evidence, secondary sources and researcher observation.
The original submission of this case entry was written by Lara Farrar, a Master of Public Service candidate at the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service. The views expressed in the current version are those of the authors, editors, or cited sources, and are not necessarily those of the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service.