The would-be movement isn’t starting from scratch. The AAPC does have a Code of Ethics, although consultants have questioned whether it’s effective in the current environment.
“What does it mean when a consultant violates that code? What if they violate it and win?,” Laura Packard, a Democratic digital consultant, wrote in a 2017 Medium piece in response to the AAPC giving Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway the “Most Valuable Player of the Year” honor.
Packard added: “Ethics in other fields provide the parameters for a professional body to judge its practitioners, but they are more of a grey area than a means of industry governance for campaign consultants.”
Now, Hana Callaghan, director of the Government Ethics Program at Santa Clara University Community, wants to help eliminate that grey area.
She’s circulated her book, Campaign Ethics: A Field Guide, to the campaigns of all the declared presidential candidates in order to avoid a repeat of 2016, which she calls “the dirtiest” cycle. (The book is also available free as a digital download).
As far as a response, Callaghan said she got thank-you notes from Bernie Sanders and Eric Swalwell, shortly before the congressman dropped out of the White House race in July.
While she didn’t get a response from Pete Buttigieg, his presidential is the only one in the 2020 field to have its own code of conduct, called “Rules of the Road,” for campaign staff and volunteers. He also instituted a code of ethics as mayor of South Bend, Ind.
Callaghan, an attorney by training who previously worked for ex-Rep. Tom Campbell (R-Calif.), said the challenge is that many in the campaign industry see the law as the line that can’t be crossed.
“Just because something is legal does not necessarily mean that it’s ethical,” she said. “This campaign guide doesn’t talk about campaign finance laws or any of the campaign rules and regulations — that’s law. What we’re talking about is a step above that, and that’s ethics.”
Ethics help maintain the integrity of the political process, she said. But they can also help a candidate win.
“One of the things that we have discovered in our research is that studies have shown that given the choice, voters want to vote for the candidate that takes the high road,” she said. “Voters are starting to figure it out. They’re starting to figure out that how a candidate campaigns is a good indicator of how they’ll govern.”
So how do you run an ethical campaign? For starters, Callaghan said, “make sure your messaging is truthful and fair.
“There appears to be a disturbing trend where candidates try to stay away from providing policy positions because they don’t want to give their opponents something to attack and they want to remain flexible.”
Still, providing messaging that is truthful, adopting a code of conduct, and publicizing a desire to run an ethical campaign can set an impossible standard that leaves the candidate vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy if anything compromising emerges during the race.
Callaghan admits that’s a fear she’s heard from candidates.
“But if you are prepared ahead of time, if you have a code of conduct and you know how you’re going to handle situations, it’ll give you confidence in how to meet those dilemmas on the trail.”
If a vendor is behaving unethically, she noted, “it would be up to the candidate to address that.”
Callaghan added: “Our point is that ethical behavior requires reflection and it requires being prepared before being faced with these challenges.
“I think, sadly, there is the idea that dirty tricks work in political campaigns and we want to change that narrative. Actually being an ethical candidate can help you win.”