Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Ethical Considerations for Candidates and Their Supporters

by Judy Nadler

Those running for public office sometimes become so focused on what they can accomplish after they're elected that they take an "ends justifies the means" approach to campaigning. But the conduct of the campaign itself can say a lot about the ethical principles a candidate brings to public life. Here are some ethical issues to consider in the three key areas of campaigning:

Fundraising

The task of raising money for a political campaign can be so overwhelming that many qualified individuals don't run for office simply because they don't want to ask for money. Here are some ethical considerations in fundraising for your campaign or on someone else's behalf.

  1. How do you ask for contributions? Whom do you solicit?
    1. Friends and family?
    2. Colleagues at work?
    3. Political action committees?
    4. Local businesses?
    5. Labor unions?
    6. Developers?
    7. Political Parties?
    8. Tobacco, gambling, other special interests?
    9. Out-of-the-area or out-of-state interests?
    10. Incumbent office holders?
    11. Municipal employees?
  2. Is there anyone you should not solicit? Why?
  3. What should you do if offered money from individuals, companies, or organizations you don't want to be associated with?
  4. How do you handle in-kind contributions?
  5. How can you tell a donation does not include an expectation of quid pro quo?
  6. Can you purchase "good will" ads and not consider them a campaign expenditure?
  7. What is your ethical responsibility in accepting campaign donations?
    1. Acknowledgment to the donor
    2. Timely and accurate disclosure
    3. Responsible use of the money
  8. Are there any ethical considerations in loaning your campaign money or in self-funding your campaign?
  9. If there is no ordinance restricting campaign fundraising or expenditures should you set a limit for yourself and make it public?
  10. Are there any problems with accepting money from individuals or groups that are giving contributions to all candidates, including your opponents?
Back to top

Communication

Communicating your ideas to the voters in an effective and honest way is key to an ethical campaign. It is equally important to accurately represent the views held by your opponent if you choose to compare your platform or record. Consider these questions as you plan and execute the campaign.

  1. Have you been truthful in describing your qualifications? Have you exaggerated your accomplishments or misrepresented your record? If you are an incumbent, are you taking individual credit for the actions of the majority of your colleagues?
  2. How will you use photos?

    1. To make you look better, your opponent look worse?
    2. To include people not supporting you, thus implying an endorsement?
    3. With or without written permission?
    4. With an accurate caption or date?
  3. Are there special considerations when using the Internet for campaigning? What role will social networks such as Facebook play in getting your message out, and how will you monitor that?
  4. What is the difference between a negative "hit piece" and a "comparative" piece?
  5. How should you respond to independent and third-party campaigning on your behalf? When those interests oppose you?
  6. What is legitimate when discussing your opponent's past? Are there any personal or financial mistakes or issues that are not fair game for a campaign?
Back to top

The Conduct of the Campaign

The entire campaign team - candidate, consultant, supporters - must be responsible for the actions taken during an election. It's especially important to have a clear understanding of the ethical standards you expect and what actions you will take should a problem arise.

  1. Who is in charge? The candidate, campaign manager, consultant?
  2. What will you do if you learn damaging information about your opponent in the last weeks of the campaign?
  3. How will you respond to an allegation of an ethics violation? Under what circumstances would you file a charge?
  4. What is your responsibility to share with the media significant changes in your campaign or your candidacy, such as the withdrawal of a key endorsement?
  5. What will you do to make sure those working on your behalf conduct themselves according to your high standards?
Back to top

November 2008


New Materials

Center News