The blog of the Urban Institute
January 14, 2020

Urban’s Role in Presidential Campaigns—Elevating the Debate with Rigor and Independence

Few events offer more opportunity to elevate the debate than a presidential campaign. As candidates offer ideas to tackle our country’s pressing policy challenges, the Urban Institute’s scholars can apply data and analytic tools to deepen public understanding of their potential impacts.

Who benefits and who is disadvantaged under a new proposal? Do projections find it will actually solve a problem? How big an impact will it achieve—and at what cost? This is the clarity we aim to providein a cacophonous environment. Urban’s research has already shone new light on 2020 campaign proposals relating to student debt forgiveness, health care reform, and tax policy.

As a 501(c)(3) research organization, Urban exists to build knowledge for policymakers, the media, the public—changemakers of all kinds. Amid the heightened policy awareness of presidential campaigns, we take extra care to ensure we remain a trusted source for reliable analysis while complying with election and lobbying rules and honoring our commitment to independence.

We know these conditions require clear guidelines for what Urban will (and won’t, or can’t) do in the context of an election. In the interest of transparency and accountability, we’re sharing our guidelines so you know our practices for all work pertaining to the 2020 presidential election:

1. Provide transparency and consistency.

When we publish an analysis, we are willing to share details on methodology, assumptions, evaluation criteria, and data sources with anyone who asks. Candidates and policymakers are free to correct or clarify our assumptions. And per our policies on errors and corrections, we will always correct the record if we discover an error.

2. Acknowledge that we can’t answer every question.

We choose which questions and proposals to analyze based not on whether researchers agree or disagree, but on whether they contain novel or important ideas, whether they are sufficiently detailed, whether we have the capacity to analyze them rigorously, and whether they present opportunities to significantly shape or clarify public understanding.

3. Live up to our high quality standards.

To produce relevant campaign analyses, our researchers must act quickly, but that is no reason for their work to fall short of our standards. We take the time to check and double-check our analysis and our explanations.

4. Provide nonexclusive counsel.

Urban experts regularly receive calls from campaign staff and advisors asking for evidence-based insight as they design policy proposals. When contacted, Urban staff explicitly say that they will provide the same answers and advice to any other campaigns, if asked.

Urban staff should never be identified as “campaign advisors” when using their Urban affiliation, and Urban analysis should never be mistaken for endorsement. In addition, if Urban staff have provided advice to campaigns, they disclose this information when publishing related analyses.

The Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center will continue evaluating presidential campaigns’ tax proposals with an engagement policy that aligns with Urban’s guidelines.

Please don’t hesitate to reach out to our external and government affairs teams or, for members of the media, our media team if you have questions or want to know more about our guidelines and policies. You may also want to review all of Urban’s 2020 campaign-related research.

We hope the guidelines outlined here—along with formal policies governing the actions of our scholars and staff for campaign-related activities—ensure Urban can bring powerful new evidence to bear throughout the next year to help voters evaluate presidential candidates and their proposals.

The stage for the vice presidential debate at Longwood University on October 4, 2016 in Farmville, Virginia. Republican vice presidential nominee Mike Pence debated Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine in the only vice presidential debate. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images).

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As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.