Attending Town Hall and Candidate Forums

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Town hall meetings and candidate forums are settings where the members of Congress and candidates want to connect with people in the district.
Whether in-person or virtual, these events provide an opportunity to directly engage with the members of Congress in a structured format before a large number of constituents.  Through good planning and by being quick to adapt to the situation, you can take advantage of these opportunities. They are worth planning for with the same care that you plan for a lobby meeting.

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Types of town halls and candidate forums

In-person General Town Halls - These are traditional town halls where the member of Congress stands before an in-person audience and answers questions on a wide variety of topics.

In-Person Topic-Specific Town Halls - These are becoming more common as a means to engage constituents directly on a specific issue facing the community, avoiding other topics the Member of Congress may not want to discuss. An example of this would be a town hall to discuss rising substance use disorder rates in the district or a large infrastructure project working its way through the local planning process. These events provide you an opportunity to engage on an issue the member of Congress is passionate about as well as demonstrate the relationship between that issue and climate change.

Teletown Halls - These are the most common type of town halls in recent years. These town halls occur over the phone with anywhere from a few hundred to thousands of constituents on the line. The audience is chosen by the Congressional office and can be selected randomly or by geographic location in the district, age, political affiliation, or some other demographic. The individuals chosen usually do not receive much notice. They are automatically dialed and connected to a live phone call where the member of Congress takes questions from callers after they are screened by a staff member. 

Candidate Forums - These will occur more frequently closer to primary and general elections. Candidate forums are often hosted by a local non-profit organization wishing to provide the community with a chance to engage candidates on a specific topic. These events are a good opportunity for grasstops engagement.  You can use the upcoming event as a reason to reach out to the local non-profit(s) hosting the event to create new or strengthen existing relationships.

Campaign Town Halls - These can take a variety of formats, including in-person or over the phone. A candidate holds these events leading up to primaries and general elections to engage directly with voters and these provide an opportunity to ask politically-focused questions that you cannot ask during a typical town hall event.

Facebook Live Events - These are hosted on Facebook and provide an opportunity for those watching to post questions to the member of Congress.

Worksheet for Leveraging Candidate Town Halls (virtual, phone or in person)

Attending town halls and candidate forums and asking effective questions during election season pulls many levers of political will.  To help your team of CCL leaders, liaisons, group leaders, chapter members and prospective volunteers help plan and coordinate your local efforts, feel free to use the following resource that CCL has put together to maximize your collective impact:

Finding town halls

There are a number of different ways to find out about and participate in town halls that your member of Congress or candidate is hosting.

Many members of Congress now include a specific form or link on their webpage for constituents to sign-up to participate or be on the list for future town hall events. If their website does not include a form, it is worth calling the office to see if they keep such a list and if your name and information can be added.

Whether the office keeps a specific list of individuals eager to participate in town hall events or not, be sure that the office has your correct contact information, including full name, address, and phone number. Be sure to use a phone number you can be reached at during weekday evenings as this is when most teletown halls will take place. 

Be sure to sign-up on the member of Congress’s website for their newsletter if you haven’t already.  Offices often send information on upcoming in-person town hall events through their newsletter subscriber list if they are trying to increase attendance. These lists are also used to formulate teletown hall audiences, particularly leading up to elections.

Check the website and Facebook pages of your member of Congress or candidate to find out when a public event is happening.

The best information comes from your district  office, so build a relationship with the scheduler. Check in with them by phone two weeks before recess to see what’s on the schedule for your member of Congress. Sometimes there isn’t much advance notice, so check in frequently during Congressional recesses.

As the campaign season begins, call the campaign office of the challenging candidate or incumbent and ask about any upcoming in-person or virtual events planned as well as if they maintain a list of individuals to invite.

You can also find out your state's important primary dates with this National Conference of State Legislators site. (The primaries are used by political parties to determine the candidates who will run for all partisan offices in their states on the general election).

Setting your objectives

Before the event, you and your team should  work together to figure out your objectives. Here are some examples:

  • Highlight a positive action the member of Congress has taken on climate change or environmental policy more broadly and encourage further action.
  • Encourage the member of Congress to take the best possible position on climate change by asking a question that links their strengths and concerns to our issue.
  • Find out more about the member of Congress or candidate and their priorities by asking a general question on climate change or related issues, like energy and national security.
  • Educate the member of Congress or candidate and others present by asking a question that contains a key fact about climate change or a CCL primary or secondary policy ask.
  • Create the impression that the public cares about climate change by not identifying as CCL, unless asked.
  • Create a positive impression of CCL’s organizing ability by identifying as CCL.
  • Establish a rapport with the member of Congress, candidate or staff by mingling informally during transition times before and after the event. Come early, stay late, and see if you can position yourself near the member of Congress.
Tips and tricks

Here are ideas of what to do at any type of town hall:

  • Keep it brief and personal.
  • Sometimes these meetings bring out members of the community who are strident or difficult, and you can be a breath of fresh air simply by being pleasant and engaging.
  • Approach these events with the same diligence you would apply to a private meeting with a member of Congress. What are the concerns of the member of Congress and their constituents? What kind of language and messaging will resonate with the audience in your district?
  • A good question includes an appreciation at the beginning and the end, and offers some useful talking points for the speaker to pick up on. It may be tempting to try to embarrass some candidates, but this will be less productive than helping them find talking points that lead to solutions.
  • Link your question to something that resonates with the member of Congress. For example, if your research shows that employment is a key issue, frame your question around jobs. If your research shows that national security is a priority, then reference a military official in your question. If air quality is bad and asthma is a problem, reference the health benefits of clean energy.

Here are ideas of what to do at a teletown hall:

  • Have drafted questions prepared ahead of time and ready to go since you may not have any advance-notice of these events. 
  • Your question will first be screened by a staff member. Very few of the questions screened are actually taken by the member of Congress.  To increase the likelihood that you will be selected, make the bulk of your comment or question about something positive the member of Congress has done recently. For example, briefly state that you’d like to thank the member of Congress for their recent vote on a specific bill or legislative action and how important that is to you personally. You are more likely to be chosen if you want to speak on a topic that the member of Congress wants to brag about and if you’re seen as an ally.
  • If you are selected and can share your comment directly with the member of Congress, focus on their recent action you support but then you can immediately follow that with a question on future action on climate or relate it back to your passion for climate solutions. 
  • If your question was not taken, wait until the end of the call and there is usually an option to leave a voice message for the office. These voice messages are reviewed and answered by staff members.

Here are ideas of what to do at an in-person event:

  • Dress nicely, sit up front, smile, and look pleasant to increase your chances of getting called on.
  • Sit near the microphone if there is one in the aisle for participants.
  • When turnout is low, sometimes a discussion can take place. If you can get a productive conversation started, you’ve turned this event into a mini-lobby meeting. If things are going very well, consider asking if you can meet again to continue the discussion.

Here are some things to avoid at any type of town hall meeting:

  • Avoid speeches disguised as questions—keep it brief and focused on one aspect.
  • Avoid questions that make them say no.
  • Avoid accusatory questions, anything that starts with “Why didn’t you…” or “I was disappointed that…” We want to lead them to a better position, and we are unlikely to reach their hearts with negative questions.
  • Avoid prefacing questions with long statements about the desperate situation with climate. When including information on climate change, reference local experts and specific local climate impacts.
  • Although these meetings can offer opportunities to move things forward, sometimes meetings are counterproductive. Avoid saying something that provokes a negative response from the crowd because that could discourage a congressman from taking leadership on climate change. Avoid backing the member of Congress into a corner and creating a defensive reaction. Our goal is engagement, not confrontation. If that’s not possible, then attending and speaking at these events may not be a useful strategy.
Sample questions

The ideal question encourages the member of Congress or candidate to respond positively and plays well with the audience. In general, we want to ask questions that encourage them to speak about solutions and/or the need for bipartisanship. Click here for the Resource hand-out for sample Town Hall Questions or visit the sitewide forums to discuss and see what others have shared.

Length
Press play to start the video (39m 24s)
Video Outline
To skip ahead to a specific section go to the time indicated in parenthesis.

Intro & Agenda
(0:00)

Types of Town Halls and Candidate Forums
(2:43)

Finding Events and Setting Objectives
(13:48)

Tips, Tricks and What To Avoid
(21:35)

Sample Questions For Various Audiences
(30:26)

Instructor(s)
  • Jennifer Tyler
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Audio length
Press play to start the audio (39m 24s)
Audio embed code
Audio Outline
To skip ahead to a specific section go to the time indicated in parenthesis.

Intro & Agenda
(0:00)

Types of Town Halls and Candidate Forums
(2:43)

Finding Events and Setting Objectives
(13:48)

Tips, Tricks and What To Avoid
(21:35)

Sample Questions For Various Audiences
(30:26)

Instructor(s)
  • Jennifer Tyler
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Topics
Lobbying Congress
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Training Resources

Sample Town Hall Questions 

The resources above are specific to this training, see all resources associated with Lobbying Congress.