The ethics of running for office in a pandemic
Imagine you are running an underdog campaign for elected office. To win you need to meet a lot of people, marshal volunteers, and raise money to get your message out. You believe that your opponent’s policies on the environment or health care would endanger millions of lives in the future, that her views on education threaten a generation of children, or that his positions on criminal justice are racist.
But you are campaigning at the start of a global pandemic that threatens millions of lives and countless livelihoods. You are running on the promise of a better future in the middle of a dire present.
What do you do?
Candidates from city council to president are considering the ethics of campaigning in the age of COVID-19. They are weighing the risks of getting and spreading illness now to prevent worse harms later. They are asking for money that could go to immediate needs to be diverted to the hope of a better future. And they are figuring out if and how to talk about the politics of it all.
Campaigning is about meeting people. Candidates stand outside grocery stores and go to state fairs, pancake breakfasts and fish fry dinners. They knock on countless doors. In an age of social distancing, candidates need to reassess the meetings they attend (if the meetings are happening at all) and whether or not it is OK to stand on a voter’s porch to talk to them through a screen door.
The question of how to contact voters is only part of the challenge. Candidates need money to pay for ads, staff and yard signs. But the global economic impact of the pandemic is going to be astronomical. Every dollar someone gives a candidate is a dollar not going to a local business or charity. It is also a dollar the donor may need if the economic impact of the crisis goes on too long.
Assuming candidates can raise enough money to get a message out, they need to figure out what the best message is. The impact of the virus would have been massive no matter how prepared we were or how quickly we responded. But the situation is worse because of policymakers’ decisions as the crisis unfolded, and for years before that. Politicizing global suffering may be wrong, but it may also be irresponsible not to point out that those who made poor decisions should be held accountable and replaced by others who would make better ones.
Every candidate will handle the ethics of campaigning in the coronavirus crisis differently. But every candidate should set ethical boundaries early and stick within those boundaries.
The ethical decisions fall into three categories: people, money and messaging. Obviously candidates should not hold large events. If they meet people in person they should avoid getting close enough to even think about shaking hands. They should carry hand sanitizer and wash their hands a lot. Candidates are already getting creative about meeting people online.
Raising money is trickier. Candidates may ask that for every dollar someone gives the campaign a dollar also goes to a local charity. Some may remind donors that they should only give what they can truly afford.
Messaging is no easier. COVID-19 is no one person’s fault, but individual decisions have made the situation worse, and in some cases better, than it otherwise could be. How to talk about those choices, how to draw lines from the current crisis to issues of access to health care or economic security, is up to individual candidates. But candidates need to be wary of messages that increase tension or foster fear of our neighbors. Every candidate should reinforce the integrity of institutions like the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). These and other agencies are full of smart, dedicated public servants working hard to protect us. We cannot recover from this crisis and prepare for the next if people do not trust our institutions. Candidates should do what they can to strengthen that trust. (As a matter of full disclosure, I was an Obama appointee at the FDA).
Candidates should approach these ethical challenges as they would other important decisions: intentionally and with forethought. They should decide their ethical boundaries as precisely as possible. They should decide how they will avoid putting peoples’ health at risk, how they will or will not ask for money, and what they will or will not say. Candidates should write those lines down. The lines should be prominently displayed on the campaign website, emailed to supporters, and taped above campaign computers. Every decision should be made while looking at those lines.
Bad decisions get made in the moment. Every foolish act seemed like a good idea at the time. The key to good decisions is thinking about those moments in advance. Take time while you have it to consider the choices you will make when those moments arrive.
Loge is director of the Project on Ethics in Political Communication and Associate Professor of the School of Media and Public Affairs at The George Washington University. He has more than 25 years in politics, including senior staff positions in the U.S. House, Senate and Obama administration.