You lose your ethical mooring the same way you go broke: Slowly at first, then all at once.
In his 1936 essay "The Crack Up," F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that the big blows that you notice are not the ones that do the real damage. The real damage is done by the small blows that you don’t notice until it’s too late. The same is true of ethics. The big and obvious decisions are easy to spot and respond to. The little decisions that you don’t notice in the moment have a way of adding up doing damage that may be irreparable.
There have been plenty of candidates who haven’t set a clear limit on how much of their own money they’ll spend on the campaign. Late in the race they write “just one more” check to cover one more round of television spots or one more batch of direct mail. When the campaign is over they are usually surprised to learn that those “just one more” decisions add up to a fair chunk of change. The best candidates decide how much of their own money they’re willing to put into a race before the race begins and stick to that number.
Few candidates suddenly decide to drop another $1 million into their campaign in the heat of the moment, but a lot will spend another $500 or $1,000 (and then another, and then another) without thinking. Similarly, most candidates do their best to follow state and federal election rules but may make claims about their opponent that, while technically accurate, mislead voters.
It’s easy to be clear about the big decisions: Don’t take out another mortgage on your house in the spur of the moment. Don’t promise anyone special treatment in exchange for a contribution. These are the potential blows that are obvious. The risks are the decisions that leak out a little at a time. A little bit over the line sets a new line. And then another step and another line, and so on until Election Day.
Avoiding the little mistakes late in the campaign requires establishing clear ethical guardrails just as you set clear financial limits before the campaign starts. Everyone with decision making authority on the campaign, from the candidate to the field staff, should be clear about those guardrails, and shouldn’t be afraid to question tactics that seem to run afoul of them.
These are some examples:
Drawing a contrast with your opponent can help voters make informed decisions. Pointing out that a candidate who wants to “bring jobs back to America” owns a company whose products are made abroad seems fair and relevant. What if your research finds a “family values” candidate is a serial adulterer? Do you drag his family into the race to point out his hypocrisy for your electoral advantage? What about past financial problems? Or political statements they have since disavowed? There are no easy or right answers to these questions.
But as with personal finances, you should find your answers early and make them as clear as possible. What is absolutely out of bounds, what is clearly in bounds, and what situations will you need to talk about with your team? When you have that conversation, what criteria will you use to determine what to do next?
Email and Social Media
Online outreach is critical for fundraising and turning out voters. But over-the-top email subject lines and emails can make it harder to govern once elected. If you have to shout about the pending collapse of the free world if your opponent wins, you’ll have a hard time working in an institution that requires compromise.
As a former member of Congress for whom I worked noted, you cannot burn down the house and then hope to occupy it. Conversely, understand that your promises (and whether you can keep them) reflect not just on your candidate, but on the political process as a whole. Broken promises breed cynicism. As with other steps, set clear guardrails and clear criteria for deciding the cases that fall into the gray areas.
Campaigns are expensive. That means raising money. The most effective way to raise money is in big chunks from people who have it. But any hint that the money is in exchange for anything (access, legislation, favors) undermines the democratic process and increases voter cynicism. Make clear early and often that donations can advance a shared vision, and that money buys no special access or favors.
There are countless other ethical decisions candidates and campaigns need to make, these are just a few of the obvious ones. And there are plenty of reasons to behave ethically during a campaign. Some fear getting caught, others have ideals about the role of rhetoric in democracy. For some, it’s a question of explaining your actions to your son or mom. Whatever the reason, find you ethical rock before the campaign, and stand firm on that rock regardless of how hard the winds try to blow you off it.
Peter Loge is an associate professor in the School of Media and Public Affairs at The George Washington University and the founding director of the Project on Ethics in Political Communication. He has more than 25 years of experience in politics and advocacy, including serving in senior staff positions in Congress and the Obama administration.