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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Unavoidable Ethical Dilemmas for Candidates

Hana Callaghan

Public trust in government is at a low reminiscent of the Watergate Era. A recent Gallop Poll indicates that public trust in the federal legislative branch is down to a mere 34 percent. A PPIC Poll of Californians puts that number at 14 percent.

Although there are many reasons for these low numbers, negative political campaigns play a role in the way the citizenry feels about those who govern.1 It is possible that the public perceives that how a person campaigns is how he or she will govern.

Political campaigns are often the first time, and sometimes the only way, that the public learns about would-be elected officials. The public sees many campaign communications as dishonest, irrelevant mudslinging. Unethical negative communications have the intended effect of lowering trust in the target of the attack, but also have the consequence of lowering trust in the attacker.2

The purpose of our political process is to create an informed electorate. Ethical campaigns should further this goal, and not serve to weaken our democratic institutions by decreasing trust. Accordingly, ethical campaigns require honesty, fairness, transparency, substance, and independence. Political candidates encounter many ethical dilemmas when running for office. These include:

Ethical Dilemmas Involving Honesty

  • Are you truthful about your record, background, and accomplishments?
  • Are you truthful about your opponent's record, background, accomplishments, or malfeasance?
  • Do you ensure that campaign staff, consultants, surrogates, or others speaking on your behalf are always truthful?
  • Do you imply endorsements where none have been given?
  • Do you Photoshop images to enhance messages that are not entirely truthful?
  • Are you honest about what you can and will do once in office?
  • Do you deceive the public by using push polling to deliver campaign messages under the guise of legitimate research?
  • Are you honest about the signatures you have gathered?
  • Do you report truthfully on all campaign reports?
  • Are you honest about your relationships with Independent Expenditure Groups?
  • Are your answers on political questionnaires consistent?

Ethical Dilemmas Involving Fairness

  • Even if an allegation against an opponent is true, is it fair under the circumstances. For example did the alleged event occur in the distant past?
  • Are you distorting your opponent's voting record by taking a vote out of context? For example, does your opponent have a favorable record on an issue, but voted for a necessary appropriation bill that included a section not favorable on that issue?
  • Are negative allegations against your opponent relevant to the office being sought? For example, do allegations against the opponent's family further the political debate or only serve to demean the opponent in the public's view?
  • Do you buy up the majority of the available airtime, thus drowning out the voices of your opponents?
  • Do you hire more political consultants than necessary thus ensuring that they cannot work for your opponent?
  • When making a negative comment about your opponent, do you give your opponent reasonable time to respond, or do you hold information back, planning for an "October surprise?"
  • If you are already an officeholder, do you use public resources not available to your opponent? For example, do you use government staff, offices, supplies and/or equipment for political purposes?
  • As an office holder do you use governmental meetings as an opportunity to campaign?
  • Do you encourage or condone the destruction of your opponent's campaign materials by staff and/or volunteers?
  • Do you interfere with the voting process by discouraging voter turnout?

Ethical Dilemmas Involving Transparency

  • Do you make all of your responses to special interest questionnaires publically available?
  • Do you disclose all of your donors in compliance with campaign finance regulations?
  • Do you disclose financial interests?
  • Do you provide your tax returns when asked?
  • Do you disclose promises made to donors and supporters?

Ethical Dilemmas Involving Substance

  • Have you developed policy positions on the issues facing the electorate?
  • Do you provide the public with access to all of your policy positions?
  • Do you honor requests to debate?
  • Do your allegations about your opponents serve to educate the public about your differences or do they merely serve to attack your opponent?
  • Are your political advertisements mere fluff pieces or do they actual inform the voters about your stance on the issues?
  • Do you conduct political town hall meetings so your views can be made known?
  • Do you stand open to questions from your future constituents?
  • Do you respond to emails and other correspondence from voters?
  • Do you answer questions from the press and participate in editorial boards?

Ethical Dilemmas Involving Independence

  • Do you pre-commit yourself by promising that you will take positions on legislation prior to having the benefit of public hearings and proper governmental deliberation? For example, do you make promises in your responses to campaign questionnaires that bind you to a certain course of action once elected? Do you sign pledges?
  • Do you make promises to donors in exchange for contributions?
  • Do you make promises to supporters in exchange for endorsements?
  • Do you exercise your own judgment when devising policy or do you feel you must be in lockstep with your party in order to get party support?
  • Do you take donations from a group that has business before you if you are an incumbent or will likely have business before you should you get elected? For example, if you are running for a seat on the city council, do you take money from developers?

Ethical Dilemmas Involving Campaign Contributions

  • As campaign finance laws are designed to eliminate corruption and undue influence, do you follow all pertinent campaign finance laws and regulations?
  • If you are given funds in excess of contribution limits, do you return them or do you work with the donor to circumvent the campaign finance rules? For example, do you advise the donor to divide up the funds among family members who then donate to you?
  • Do you directly, or indirectly, coordinate with independent groups campaigning on your behalf?
  • Do you send former staffers to work on independent expenditure committees?
  • If you are an incumbent do you seek contributions from government staff?
  • If you are in business, do you seek contributions from your employees?
  • Do you encourage your employees to participate in the company PAC?

We invite you to contribute to our list of unavoidable ethical campaign dilemmas. Please send your ideas and comments to Government Ethics Director Hana Callaghan at hcallaghan@scu.edu.

Hana Callaghan is the director of government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

September 2014


1. See e.g., "The Effects of Negative Political Campaigns: A Meta-Analytic Reassessment" Lau, Richard R.; Sigelman, Lee; Rovner, Ivy Brown. Journal of Politics, 2007, Vol. 69, Issue 4, 1176-1209.

2. See, "How do negative political ads impact public trust in candidates?" Zahedzadeh, Giti; Merolla, Jennifer. A study prepared for a presentation at the annual meeting of the Western Political Science Association, Portland, Oregon, 2012.

Oct 22, 2015

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