Bird-dogging is a tactic that many organizations, and concerned citizens, use to pressure candidates to take a public stance on an issue, or to question a stance that a candidate has already taken. It usually consists of one or more bird-doggers who go to a public event where a candidate will appear. The bird-doggers ask the candidate pointed questions about issues they care about in order to elicit a response. Because members of the media often attend candidate events, bird-dogging plays an important role in getting candidates’ positions “on record”and holding them accountable to their constituents.
1) Identify your targets.
List all candidates for U.S. Senate or House seats in your area. Next you need to assess your resources in order to determine how many candidates you can bird-dog effectively. You should calculate how much staff time can be devoted exclusively to birddogging, how many volunteers are committed and for how long, what kind of transportation resources you have available, how many flyers can you produce for distribution at candidate events, what media contacts you have already established, and other related questions to decide how many candidates you can bird-dog effectively.
When choosing candidates to bird-dog, don’t exclude candidates who are clearly for or against our cause too quickly. Remember, your primary objective is to increase the awareness on our issues not just with the candidate, but with the media and the public as well. Also, don’t stop the process just because a candidate appears repeatedly in your community. It is specifically that repetition of questions which is valuable because it elevates peace as an issue in which many voters are interested. Repetition is also good for attracting the media. A reporter may think your question is an isolated one the first time she/he hears it, but if she/he hears it again, it may make them curious to find out what is behind that question. Use your judgment to assure that good repetitive questioning does not go too far and become harassment.
2) Find out where the candidate will be.
One of the easiest ways to find out where a candidate will be is to call their campaign office, join his or her email list, or to check their website. If you have good contacts with the media, you might be able to get information from friendly journalists, or those with a progressive point of view. Stay up-to-date with local newspapers/sites, because they often publish calendars of candidate events. Find out as much about each event as you can, so you know what to expect ahead of time.
You could also consider organizing your own issue forum or candidate debate. This might be easier to do if you co-host the event with other organizations, or with a prominent coalition. One advantage to this kind of event is that you can invite candidates to speak only to the issues you choose.
3) Get to know the candidates.
The more you know about a candidate’s views on disarmament and intervention, the better prepared you will be for his or her appearance in your area. Check out incumbent voting records at www.peace-action.org, ask for position papers from the campaign office or directly question the staff, write a letter to the candidate, send a candidate questionnaire (available from the national office) to the campaign office, and follow the campaign in the local papers to glean candidate positions/answers. Integrate these positions into your questions!
The bird-dogging will be most effective if the questions are based on very recent information about the candidate’s positions. For example, if a candidate answers a question in San Antonio, the information should be relayed to a central Peace Action chapter acting as the chief organizer of election work. This information will then be passed on to the contacts working on that candidate’s next campaign appearance. In that way a questioner in Houston can ask:
“Wednesday, in San Antonio, you said you were undecided about whether you would vote in favor of sharply reducing military spending. Have you thought more about this issue, and if so what is your position?”
This preparation allows peace activists to ask informed, specific questions about each candidate’s views. It also tells the candidate that peace activists are serious about this election, and that the peace movement is organized.
Your questions will have a greater impact if they are based on current events as well. Using recent news will give your questions a freshness that will be attractive to both the media and the public.
4) Prepare your questions ahead of time.
You’ll need to have your questions ready before the event. That way, while every one else is thinking of what they want to ask, you’ll already be prepared. Make a list of questions and prioritize them, you don’t know how many people in your team will be called on to ask a question, so if only 1-2 of you are picked you are able to ask the most important questions. To help you get started, we’ve put together these sample questions.
For more detailed question ideas for 2006, you may also want to check out Peace Action’s latest candidate questionnaire (online at www.PeaceVoter.org/howto.html).
Our current foreign policy has enmeshed us in a quagmire in Iraq. In addition to the toll the war has already taken on American soldiers and Iraqi civilians, our presence is escalating the violence and insecurity in Iraq. What will you do to get us out of Iraq, and how will you define a new direction for US foreign policy?
The current administration has requested funding for new nuclear weapons. In addition, the government’s Nuclear Posture review spells out an increased role for nuclear weapons in US military strategy. What would you do to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons and to ensure that the United States does not build new, more usable nuclear weapons?
If there is an open question and answer period, your pre-planning will pay off. Most people don’t raise their hands immediately. But as a well prepared bird-dogger you can express immediate interest in asking a question – so get your hand up early and often, and sit up front.
Sometimes only members of the media are allowed to ask questions. In this case, see if you can get a journalist to ask some of the questions you’ve prepared.
5) Other things to keep in mind…
Work in teams of two or more people and disperse. Bird-dogging can sometimes make people nervous so it’s best to go in teams of two or more for support. One person should act as note-taker for the event. Its best if you can get the candidate’s response on camera, but either way, get an accurate quote of what was said so you can pass the information on. Please send responses and information to the Peace Action office!
When you ask a question, be prepared with a follow up question – you might just get the opportunity to ask it. And, this way if someone else asks your question you’ll have a backup. If you have a group of people at the event, split them up. Scattering at the event might allow everyone in the group to ask a question.
Keep it cordial. You are likely to get more of a response from candidates, and make a positive impression on the media, if you are calm and respectful in your demeanor. Hardly anyone is 100 percent opposed to your views, so try and come up with a compliment on a candidate’s position that you can mention before you ask your question.
6) Raise the issues.
If possible, identify a special group of peace supporters: veterans, church leaders, mothers with small children, high school students, etc. As soon as one member of the group is recognized to ask a question, the rest of the group should stand. The questioner can preface his or her question with something such as, “The 10 veterans standing up are all here because of their concern over the Iraq War…”
If the audience can ask questions and peace supporters include some recognized community leader or active political party member, ask her/him to attend. That person might have a better chance of getting recognized. Also, he or she might draw more media attention.
In order to maximize your question’s impact, you should take into account your expected response to a candidates question when you ask it.
Remember, a question may be forceful—even pointed—and still be asked in a polite, courteous manner.
The candidates should know that Peace Action has broad support and that a lot of people are interested in knowing where we stand on the War in Iraq, Iran, the U.S.-India Deal, arms trade, nuclear test ban, etc. Make your presence known by distributing flyers, buttons, stickers, placards, etc.
7) Make contact with the media.
Appearances by candidates are media events. Often included are network TV and radio, wire services, and local press. Even the smallest Congressional appearances will attract a local reporter or representative of a state wire service. Have someone prepared to identify and contact media representatives to underscore the importance of the questions you will be asking.
Since the press is under great pressure to meet deadlines, it often covers those aspects of a story which are most convenient. Therefore, it is important for your representatives to be available before, during, and after the event. Making yourself known to the press will greatly increase the likelihood that your questions will be highlighted. Make sure that your media contact is listed on any flyers you hand out, so reporters can contact a media representative immediately if they have questions later.
Other media suggestions: call offices in advance to find out who will be covering the event and then engage that reporter beforehand, have a press release or fact sheet available, have an articulate spokesperson available for reporters.