Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Attack Ads, Questionnaires, and Push Polling: Ethical Issues in Campaign Communications

By Caroline Jaffe-Pickett
L-R: Steve Glazer, James Fisfis, and Richard Temple

"Ethical Considerations in Campaign Communications" was the focus of a presentation August 1 2014, for the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics Public Sector Roundtable. Panelists Steve Glazer, president of Glazer & Associates and former political strategist for Governor Brown, Richard Temple, executive vice president of McNally Temple Associates, and James Fisfis, founder of Chariot LLC, spoke before an audience of local elected officials from Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area. The panelists focused on issues such as transparency in campaign questionnaires, the influence of polls and big data on election outcomes, and campaign advertising and attack ads. Director of Government Ethics Hana Callahan moderated.

Questionnaires and Transparency

Steve Glazer, who opened the session, is not only a political consultant, he is a current member of the Orinda City Council and former candidate for California Assembly. Every candidate receives questionnaires from special interest groups ranging from the National Rifle Association to the Sierra Club. Each organization wants to know the candidate's views on a variety of public policy issues. Candidates who decline to fill out these questionnaires are usually not considered for endorsement or financial assistance by the organization. The questionnaires themselves and the candidates' responses are frequently not made public.

"On the issue of candidate questionnaires, I have a different view from the traditional one," commented Steve Glazer during his opening remarks. Glazer described being increasingly troubled by the "secretive" nature of questionnaires. It was one thing to complete them, but in the name of transparency, where was public disclosure? So when Glazer received over 30 questionnaires during his candidacy for California Assembly, he decided to take action by posting the questions and answers on his website "for all to see."

Questionnaires pose ethical issues because candidates are being scrutinized and evaluated according to positions they've taken prior to being elected. How open can politicians be to new information when they've pre-committed themselves to certain positions? How do their positions hold up over time? Are they beholden to pressures from special interest groups that endorsed them? And ultimately, does failure to disclose questionnaire answers demonstrate a lack of transparency on the candidate's true political positions?

Glazer suggested that questionnaires contribute to the problem of polarization in government because they lock politicians into their positions.

Polling and Consumer Data Privacy

James Fisfis, founder of Chariot, LLC and a political consultant since 1994, explored the ethical impacts of polling, test messaging, and big data. His three main ethical considerations for negative messaging were:

  1. Impact on the community
  2. Impact on colleagues—a "bad actor" makes the job more difficult for all political consultants
  3. Alignment with the democratic process—(is this a good thing to do or not?)

A framework for determining whether allegations against a political opponent are ethical includes, first and foremost, assessing the facts. Was the allegation true or not? If true, how long ago did the transgression take place, and did it involve the candidate only or family members? (Incidents involving family members are generally considered off limits). Also, was the allegation relevant to the office being sought?

Fisfis also discussed the ethical nuances of polling. Being honest about your methodology, having a balanced sampling, and making sure your information is correct, are three important ethical guideposts. Also, a poll may not be a valid research tool, but rather just a vehicle for delivering the candidate's message. The American Association of Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) warns about "push polls," unethical political telemarketing disguised as research and designed to persuade voters, not measure opinion. Finally, polling can affect the outcome of elections in a phenomenon known as the "bandwagon effect"; people who are undecided lean to the person ahead in the polling by about 6 percent in some studies.

Fisfis concluded with a discussion of big data strategies in politics. In an era when even the online purchases, tweets, or Facebook posts can create a digital trail, campaign tacticians are using this information as clues to voting habits. Fisfis saw two ethical problems with this practice: 1) Such data use may infringe on the privacy of citizens. The average voter may not realize that "cookies" on websites are capturing their preferences and sharing them with candidates. 2) Targeting citizens based on their probable political beliefs can create an echo chamber. "Is it good for democracy if people only see things that confirm what they already believe?" Fisfis asked.

"Attack Ads" and Political Advertising

Richard Temple, named one of California Weekly's "Top 100" unelected political players in the state, also brought the political consultant's viewpoint to the table. While he said that campaign ethics can sometimes be a gray area, Temple's approach to ethics was nonetheless logical and pragmatic. "One way to make sure a campaign is ethical is to defeat those who are not," he stated. "If bad behavior is rewarded, it will keep happening."

He offered the following scenario: "Suppose your opponent has a DUI on record. Is that a legitimate point of attack? Was the incident last week, or ten years ago? Was anyone killed? Does the candidate's voting record indicate leniency on this issue?" He also talked about whether candidates' personal losses such as bankruptcy and real estate foreclosures are fair game for attack ads. In those cases, he suggested that campaign strategists should consider whether the problem was relevant to the candidate's future role in public life.

Temple explored various premises about attack ads and negative campaigns, and challenged many currently held beliefs on the subject. A "dirty campaign," he said, is attacking with a lie--an attack on its own is not dirty. There must be benchmarks for evaluating the truth before embarking on an attack ad or campaign. Temple also emphasized the distinction between a healthy democracy and fabrication. It's healthy to have a discourse with opposing views --but obviously not to "make stuff up."

With ethics always an issue in political campaigns, Temple provided some reassurance. "There's a lot more ethics in campaigns then you might expect," he stated, "but the pressure's on for those less experienced who are in positions of responsibility, both in terms of strategy and spending." Temple said that inexperienced consultants working for candidates without large war chests might be more inclined to go on the attack. "There's the perception that if you aren't punching someone in the nose, you're not doing your job," he said.

One way to ensure that the public is getting the most truthful campaigns possible? The panelists agreed: "Elect the person who doesn't need the job, and hire the consultant who doesn't need the work."

Resources

Can Polls Change Elections?
Consumer Data Privacy in Politics
AAPOR Provides Clarification on "Push Poll" Issue

Carrie Jaffe-Pickett is the Assistant Director of Communications and Social Marketing for the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

August 2014


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