The Iowa caucuses are known for their “living-room chats” where ordinary Iowans can meet candidates face-to-face and talk about what interests voters. When candidates have larger events or make major policy speeches, the crowds are bigger, but there is often still an opportunity for questions. But under the pressures of major media coverage, with polls narrowing in Iowa, campaigns can potentially control questions and coverage by planning questions ahead of time.
While no campaigns admit to this practice, at a recent Hillary Clinton campaign event in Newton, Iowa, some of the questions posed to the New York Senator were planned in advance, planting some audience members in the crowd.
On Tuesday Nov. 6, the Clinton campaign stopped at a biodiesel plant in Newton as part of a weeklong series of events to introduce her new energy plan. The event was clearly intended to be as much about the press as the Iowa voters in attendance, as a large press core helped fill the small venue. Reporters from many major national news outlets came to the small Iowa town, from such media giants as The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, the Associated Press, and CNN.
After her speech, Clinton accepted questions. But according to Grinnell College student Muriel Gallo-Chasanoff ’10, some of the questions from the audience were planned in advance. “They were canned,” she said. Before the event began, a Clinton staff member approached Gallo-Chasanoff to ask a specific question after Clinton’s speech. “One of the senior staffers told me what [to ask],” she said.
Clinton called on Gallo-Chasanoff after her speech to ask a question: what Clinton would do to stop the effects of global warming. Clinton began her response by noting that young people often pose this question to her before delving into the benefits of her plan.
But the source of the question was no coincidence—at this event “they wanted a question from a college student,” Gallo-Chasanoff said. She also noted that staffers prompted Clinton to call on her and another who had been approached before the event, although Clinton used her discretion to select questions and called on people who had not been prepped before hand. Some of the questions asked were confusing and clearly off-message.
The practice of planting audience members to ask specific questions does not appear to be a common practice, or at least not a politically acceptable one. “Our campaign does not plant questions,” said Lauren Rose, Communications Director for Governor Bill Richardson’s campaign. When asked what she would think of other campaigns who did plant audience members, Rose said, “I think campaigns should give Iowa caucus-goers the chance to ask the questions they want.”
When asked if the John Edwards campaign employed such practices, Jenni Lee, Edwards’s Iowa Press Secretary said, “No, they ask whatever they want.”
But the Clinton campaign also denied the practice of planting. “It’s not a practice of our campaign to ask people to ask specific questions,” said Mark Daley, Clinton’s Iowa Communications Director. Daley said that when an event is focusing on a specific topic, such as health care or Iraq, “people are encouraged to ask questions in these regards,” but denied that they are given specific questions.
But when directly asked if his statements meant that planting does not occur in the Hillary campaign, Daley could only say, “to the best of my knowledge.”
“[Planting] is not something that is encouraged in our campaign,” he said.
The event in Newton was a particularly major policy speech, more informative than rallying. The campaign’s apparent tactics at this event may have little or no relationship with the questions at less formal campaign events.
Other presidential campaigns were approached for comment on the topic, but no others responded before the paper went to press.
Serving as a stark contrast to the Clinton event was Richardson’s campaign stop at Grinnell College the night before. Richardson’s appearance was designed as an opportunity for voters to interact with the candidate, and not the media event that Clinton held in Newton. In lower-profile events like Richardson’s (and most of Clinton’s) candidates face many challenging, presumably spontaneous questions.