Political Consultants Struggle to Enforce Code of Ethics

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Hard-boiled old-timer Lyn Nofiger is not impressed by the political-consulting profession's efforts to articulate and enforce ethical standards. "I think the American Association of Political Consultants [or AAPC] has some, but I don't belong to it," he laughs.

The APPC certainty is trying, and it does have a code of ethics. All new members must sign it, and all current members must sign again when they renew. The code focuses on unethical campaign tactics. Deception of any kind, such as doctoring photos, is barred. That's the easy case; many plays are much harder to call. Everyone recognized that a campaign is not exactly the ideal forum for objective analysis, and no candidate is obliged to acquaint the public with his opponent's virtues.

One form of deception the AAPC forcefully has condemned is push-polling. "This is not a form of polling at all," says AAPC Communications Director Adam Dubitsky. "It's a way of spreading derogatory stories about an opponent under cover of neutral research. You get a call from someone who is actually paid by the Jones campaign but who claims to be from Citizens for Truth and Virtue, or something like that. They ask you your preference in the election, and if you say you're for Smith, who is Jones' opponent, they'll then say: 'Would it influence your vote if you knew that Smith was once convicted of child molestation?' or whatever. Then you probably say yes, and they thank you for your time.

"They've never actually said Smith was a child molester, but they've spread the rumor. That's push-polling. It's wrong, and the AAPC convened a large press conference last year, with Democratic and Republican consultants, to describe it and condemn it."

How does the AAPC enforce its code? With regard to push-polling Dubitsky tells Insight, "we don't investigate or issue citations, but if a campaign calls us with a complaint that their opponent is push-polling we can explain to them in detail how we define push-polling, so they can determine whether the facts of what their opponent is doing correspond to the definition."

The AAPC has censured some of its members, says Dubitsky, but it lacks a formal disciplinary structure. "Disciplinary procedures are usually tied to a licensing scheme, such as you have in law and medicine. With us, even our most liberal members -- who you might think would be open to the idea of regulation -- are against licensing." Indeed, some professions are inherently opposed to licensing schemes. Journalism, for instance.

Besides dubious campaign techniques, another potential source of ethical questions for consultants is client selection. …