How To Handle A Tough Audience

by Kenneth J. Drum

Every candidate should learn how to handle a tough audience.

Simply put candidates should avoid appearances before hostile audiences. In some campaigns that's not possible. It's possible especially for an incumbent, to be "bush-wacked" by activists who attend an event with the sole purpose of hurling untrue accusations and insults at a candidate. It can happen at a so-called "town hall" meeting or a forum when an incumbent candidate expecting to discuss important local issues is confronted with a delegation of opposition sympathizers. A candidate has to have a strategy in mind should this occur. Hopefully, it won't be a problem but a candidate should know what to do.

An accepted definition of a heckler is a person who shouts a disparaging comment at a performance or event, or interrupts set-piece speeches, for example at a political meeting, with intent to disturb its performers or participants. The British have a long tradition of heckling political candidates or other public speakers. It's kind of taken as part of the democratic process. London's famous Speaker's Corner was a place where public speakers and hecklers congregated for over 100 years. It was not only an example of freedom of speech but was also considered a form of entertainment. If anyone has watched the House of Commons on CSPAN there is quite a bit of heckling taking place there as well.

The United States has no such tradition. In fact, heckling is considered wrong, rude or inappropriate in most cases. Candidates are expected to answer questions but are not expected to be drawn into arguments or repartee with members of an audience. While it's perfectly acceptable for a candidate to decline an invitation to speak at a particular event for almost any reason a candidate should not avoid an event just because there might be some tough questions or supporters of an opponent present.

It is generally viewed that the organization or the group sponsoring an event is responsible for the decorum of the audience. It is therefore wise for a candidate to inquire about the format of the event before agreeing to participate. If the event is billed as a candidates' debate the discussion should be between the candidates and not between the candidates and the audience. If there are questions from the audience it may be best if they are written and presented through a moderator.

At some events that's not possible. Also, some candidates want to take direct questions from the audience because they feel comfortable doing it. They also like to hear directly from voters. There's nothing wrong with it but a candidate should know in advance the format of the event and decide if they want to participate. A candidate should also consider the kinds of tough questions they will be asked if the format permits it.

The so-called "townhall" meeting format relies heavily upon questions from an audience. When questions are allowed from an audience you're liable to get anything. There are "softball" questions that allow a candidate to expound on one of their important issues. There are "hardball" questions that are tough to answer and possibly asked to put a candidate in a bad light.

Here are some ways of handling tough questions. If a questioner has a question that is prefaced with a wrong set of facts the questioner should be answered politely with the correct facts. If the questioner insists that their facts are correct and the candidate's facts are wrong, a questioner can be challenged by pointing out politely, that they're entitled to their opinion but not their own set of facts.

A question can also be challenged by disagreeing with the premise of the question. This type of question usually falls into the "Have you stopped beating your wife?" category. By answering the question you have also agreed to the premise of the question which is usually an admission to an unfavorable assertion of the opponent. It's a perfect example of the "trick question". A candidate should respectfully explain why the premise of the question is wrong and therefore refuse to answer the question as it was posed.

One way to ensure that no one accepts your viewpoint is to ignore or insult other viewpoints. It's generally considered a virtue to show respect for other ideas and to be open minded. That said, it doesn't mean that you have to agree with them, but their views should be treated respectfully. You can often preface your answer by stating "That's an excellent question. Here's why I don't agree with your conclusion".

Another way to diffuse a tough question is to agree with it but with some caveats. It's always difficult for a rebuttal by the questioner when you have essentially agreed with them. If they continue to press the issue most audiences will consider the questioner unreasonable. A good moderator should cut them off at that point.

These are just a few examples of how to handle tough questions. Most of these forums or debates at the local level don't change many voter's minds. It's usually a standoff. They do give a candidate exposure and sometimes access to the media. It's a good idea for candidates to participate in these events because local candidates don't often get the publicity that candidates at the top of the ballot receive. It's a mistake to think that these campaign events will propel a candidate into an elective office. Rather, it's the hard work of meeting people and grassroots organizing that wins elections. With a few notable exceptions, it is difficult to talk your way into an election victory.

QUESTION:  What attracts voters to a candidate's campaign and how can it translate into a win?

In a simple word it's "issues." Personality, academic background, community involvement, personal history, etc. are important factors in winning elections. It all counts. However, by far the single most important factor is what the candidate stands for. An age old theory of political organizing is that a candidate should organize a campaign around their issues and not who they are or what they have done. Of course the candidate's issues have to be issues that are important to voters and voters are always concerned about a candidate's background.

No matter how much a candidate will try to convince voters to vote for them there will always voters who will not respond favorably to a candidate's message. You can't be all things to all people. Therefore, it's important to concentrate on voters that will likely agree with the candidate's message. Voters like candidates that stand for something even though other voters may disagree.

It's also a good idea to target dissatisfaction where it exists. Especially, if the candidate is a challenger. Finding the right issue is not always easy because what motivates one group of voters may not motivate others. That's why early in the campaign a candidate should develop a platform of campaign issues that will directly motivate targeted segments of the electorate.

There's of course a huge difference between a primary and a general election. In a primary election a candidate must analyze what issues are important to members of the party. As the campaign rolls on other issues will develop. You can count on it. In a general election the independent vote can become a major factor depending upon the makeup of the electorate. Whether it be a primary or a general election the candidate must still be able to "frame the issue" for voters. It is generally believed that the candidate who successfully "frames the issue" for voters will win the election.

Most voters will have a candidate in mind before they go to the polls. There have been several studies that attempt to show exactly when most voters will make up their mind who to vote for. None of them that I've seen are conclusive but I believe it's about three to four weeks prior to an election. When you get to the last two weeks or so of a campaign you're fighting over the last 10% who are still undecided. They're very important because in a close election. They can be the difference between winning and losing.

In "down the ballot" elections the voters may not even know who's running until the end of the campaign. Some voters will even leave their ballot blank rather than vote for someone they don't know. It happens all of the time with judicial elections. These voters are referred to as "under votes" and they can be a significant source of votes on election day if organized properly.

Voters may use a local newspaper endorsement to make their choices and not worry too much about the candidate's qualifications or issues. Some may just vote on the recommendation of a friend. A candidate should have a plan for all of these situations. It is a mistake to solely rely on media advertising, mailings, newspaper endorsements, etc. When a candidate develops their issues, targets their audience, frames the issue of the campaign for voters, has a voter ID program and has a good get out the vote operation they will stand a good chance of winning the election. Even if they lose the election they will have given the campaign their best shot.

This article was reprinted with permission of Kenneth J. Drum & Associates, 8404 Mallow Lane, Naples, FL 34113. Copyright 2014. Kenneth J. Drum & Associates. All Rights Reserved. For more information about the author go to:

Go Next

Are you ready to learn more? Contact Us