Credibility and Negative Campaigning

In the Unterman-Stevens race, each candidate competed in a Republican primary and claimed that she was more conservative than her opponent. Though voters inevitably differ in opinion, a Republican primary does not serve a wide ideological spectrum. Consistent with Houston and Doan’s (1999) research, it was important that both candidates thoroughly document the facts behind their negative attacks (due to the nature of this race and an assumption that nearly all voters viewed Unterman and Stevens as shared-ideology candidates). Though Unterman and Stevens used several different attacks against each other, two issue-based attacks dominated their ammunition throughout the race and illustrate the importance of documenting attacks in a “shared-ideology” contest. Both attacks were aimed at damaging the credibility of the other candidate. However, while Unterman carefully documented the evidence behind her claims with a website listing the facts behind each issue, Stevens failed to provide the public with similar, highly visible documentation for her attacks. The first issue-based attack sponsored by Stevens involved a 1998 land deal in Loganville while Unterman was mayor.2 This attack is the subject of the first negative advertisements in the race. In addition to the direct mail attacks, Unterman started a website, www.landfill-lobbyist.com, which contained further documentation of her claims. The website address appeared prominently on all of Unterman’s direct mail attacks. Stevens’ failure to provide similar documentation for her claims coupled with Unterman’s well-documented refutation and continual attacks on Stevens’ credibility decreased the effectiveness of Stevens’ attacks. Unterman’s thorough documentation of her own claims strengthened her credibility and made her attacks on Stevens devastating.

Election Results and the Attribution of Negative Campaigning

Although negative advertising plays an important role in the outcome of an election, other factors prove more significant, such as experience and campaign spending. In their 2000 book, Elections to Open Seats in the U.S. House, Charles Bullock and Keith Gaddie identify experience and campaign spending as the two strongest predictors of election success. In agreement with Bullock and Gaddie, Unterman attributes her win to approximately “10% negative campaigning and 90% positive campaigning” (Unterman, 2003). Unterman comments that her landfill advertisements were “very effective” but feels her success was more dependent on the time of election, “…with the war beginning and the economy shaking, people want consistency and stability” (Unterman, 2003). Because Unterman’s campaign centers on local issues, the landfill in Buford, Lake Lanier, the senior center in Walton, and senior services in Gwinnett, she easily identified with constituents (Rehm, 2003). Well known in the community for thirty years, Unterman’s name recognition was difficult to overcome by Stevens. Indeed, Stevens attributes the outcome of the election mainly to Unterman’s name recognition in the district and to her funding, saying that a politician would “…need money to get [his/her] message out and [Renee Unterman] went in with a much higher name ID” (Stevens, 2003). Clearly, Unterman played the role of an incumbent in this race. Her ability to self-fund at a very high level, her high name recognition and approval within the communities she represents over her 14-year public service career, and her record of achievement during that period allowed her to position herself as the de facto incumbent and forced Stevens to run a challenger’s race. Stevens understood the effects of the funding disparity between her and Unterman, “When you run a campaign, you need to have the ability to turn around press releases and commercials— so you need your consultant, staff, or campaign manager very close to you. Days make a difference” (Stevens, 2003). Despite criticism for their negative race, Unterman understood that it is necessary and will employ negative tactics in the future, and Stevens reflects, “[I’m] proud of the campaign I ran. I stood by my principles and beliefs” (Nurse, 2002).

In the context of recent research, the Unterman-Stevens race illustrates the characteristics of those candidates likely to use negative advertising, the importance of providing evidence for negative claims, and the negative consequences that occur if the public perceives an advertisement as too negative, too harsh, or too personal. Scholars present guidelines for candidates when using negative attack advertising, and these guidelines are strengthened by the fact that they were supported in a real campaign. Ongoing empirical studies come about from these scholarly pursuits that will undoubtedly assist candidates and consultants in the future in their decision to use negative advertising.

Analysis of the Campaign

In addition to several other scholarly studies, the real, current contest of the 2002 race between Unterman and Stevens supported almost all of Lau and Pomper’s (2001) findings. This race was unique because Unterman and Stevens were both Republican women, and thus the factors of gender and party were irrelevant. Also, the characteristic of candidates attacking in close elections did not apply due to the results of the primary and consequent runoff. Unterman won the primary with 48% to Stevens' 24% and the following runoff with 64% to Stevens' 26% of the vote; this did not constitute a close election. Due to Unterman’s position as the frontrunner early in the race, Stevens ran her campaign as a challenger. Even though the election was not extremely close, the outcome of the election was not easily predicted either. The lack of an incumbent in the race supported the hypothesis that candidates in open elections are more likely to engage in attack advertising. Although both candidates were well-financed, Unterman’s campaign expenditures exceeded Stevens’ by almost $300,000. This factor may have contributed to Stevens’ initial attack against Unterman. Also supporting their conclusion, Unterman used negative advertising against Stevens once attacked.

Supporting Tinkham and Weaver Lariscy’s (1995) finding that the perception of incumbency advantage influences the decision to use negative advertising, Stevens admitted that Unterman’s name recognition was difficult to battle (Stevens, 2003). Tinkham and Weaver Lariscy’s (1996) conclusion that challengers and candidates in open races are both more likely to “go negative” was illustrated by both candidates as they competed in an open primary. Stevens’ campaign supported Houston and Doan’s (1999) research because her failure to support thoroughly her negative claims proved harmful. Both Stevens and Unterman are Republicans and thus shared-ideology candidates. In addition to this illustration, the emotional nature of Stevens’ and Unterman’s campaigns contributed to the believability of both negative campaigns and supports O’Cass’ (2000) study. Even though Unterman seemingly violated Jasperson and Fan’s (2002) conclusion by using advertisements that were “too personal” and thus “too negative,” no backlash occurred at the polls. Overall, Stevens’ and Unterman’s campaigns supported the principles discussed in the literature review.

Max Cleland versus Saxby Chambliss

Used at all levels of campaigning, negative attack advertising reached new heights during the 2002 elections. While public opinion largely disapproves of the negative technique increasingly employed in elections, these negative tactics invariably work to the candidates’ advantage. Arguably one of the most negative races of the year, the 2002 U.S. Senate race between Democratic incumbent Max Cleland and Republican challenger Saxby Chambliss demonstrates the results found by scholars in the context of a real campaign. Chambliss decided to run for the Senate after being drawn into the same House district with fellow Republican Jack Kingston. After serving as Georgia’s Secretary of the State for many years, incumbent Cleland was first elected to the Senate in 1996 with 49 percent of the vote (www.cnn.com, 2002).

Negative Advertising in the 2002 U.S. Senate Race

Throughout the election, several negative messages were used to undermine the campaign efforts of each opponent. The “$20 million tug of war” delivered some of the most negative advertisements in 2002 (Tharpe, 2002). The Sierra Club, an environmental organization supporting Cleland, ran the first negative ads of the campaign. Soon after the Sierra Club’s attack ads aired, Chambliss’ consultants launched a strategic effort using negative advertising to undermine Cleland’s credibility and platform. Chambliss justified his negative advertisements against Cleland: “We knew early on we couldn’t win if we ran against Cleland, so we ran against his record and his lack of leadership” (McMurray, 2002). Tom Perdue, chief campaign consultant to Chambliss, described the campaign strategy: “We picked out several votes that weren’t in sync with Georgia. And we ran [seven] 10-second commercials. When we knew that two of them worked, we converted them to 30-second spots” (Williams, Dick, 2002). Cleland disagreed with Chambliss’ negative attacks in the campaign: “I think the people of Georgia deserve better. They didn’t deserve character assassination ads that go after me” (Williams, Dave, 2002). Despite Cleland’s distaste for negative ads, the nature of the campaign became that of an advertising battleground. Among the negative ads used in his campaign, Cleland attacked Chambliss for votes that would hurt Georgia’s families and health care. During the campaign, Chambliss’ negative messages about Cleland ranged from his support for higher taxes, preventing the Boy Scouts from meeting on school grounds, providing public school children with birth control, to voting against the President’s Homeland Security efforts. However, the advertisement regarding Homeland Security was the most profound in the race.

Homeland Security

As chairman of the House Intelligence Committee’s Subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland Security, Chambliss was extremely supportive of President Bush’s anti-terrorism efforts (Williams, Dave, 2002). The Department of Homeland Security was deadlocked in the Senate and Chambliss used Cleland’s key vote to undermine his message that he supported the President’s efforts. Chambliss’ 30-second spot accusing Cleland of voting 11 times against a bill to create the Department of Homeland Security, announced, “Max Cleland says he has the courage to lead, but the record proves that is just misleading.” Even though Cleland’s record showed that he voted for a version of the bill that favored more protection for federal health care employee unions, President Bush and Miller supported the version that allowed the president complete control over hiring and firing of federal employees in the department. Although the message was strong, images of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein ignited the controversy surrounding the ad. The day the ad aired, Democrats sent e-mails around the country reporting that Chambliss’ team challenged Cleland’s patriotism. Further refuting the attack, Cleland appeared on the Judy Woodruff show at CNN the next day. U.S. Senator Zell Miller pointed to Cleland’s record in the Vietnam War, during which he lost both legs and an arm. “It’s disgraceful for anybody to question Max Cleland’s commitment to our national security,” argued Senator Zell Miller; “Max Cleland is my hero” (www.pbs.org, 2002). Chambliss’ team refused to admit that the ad challenged Cleland’s patriotism. Despite the controversy, Perdue held that “the pictures were not even a significant part of the ad. They were thrown in to magnify our words…in a time of turmoil and turbulence…they were dictators in the world” (Perdue, 2003). Perdue explained that the strategy was to “…undo his credibility because he was lying about his record…and we tried to undo his slogan” (Perdue, 2003). Chambliss’ campaign later spliced out the Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein images, contending that the controversy shifted attention away from the ad’s message. However, the “courage to lead” language was not removed and the ad reappeared on Monday of the following week. The Homeland Security 30-second spot was “the ad that broke the whole campaign wide open…what we called into question were his votes. The more he screamed about the ad, the more he called into question that he couldn’t defend his votes. Had Max Cleland left that ad alone…we would’ve lost the race” (Perdue, 2003). Perdue believed Cleland’s reaction to the ad was a mistake: “We got more airplay on that ad than we could’ve ever afforded to buy if we put all our money in the campaign. Every national network played and replayed that ad” (Perdue, 2003). Although Cleland’s reaction affected the impact of the ad, the message’s impact increased, possibly due to the phenomenon known as the sleeper effect.

The Sleeper Effect in the 2002 U.S. Senate Race

Chambliss’ negative ad, attacking Cleland for his failure to support President Bush’s Homeland Security efforts, illustrates the sleeper effect in a real campaign. The dramatic reaction by Cleland, his staff, and his supporters emphasized the negativity of the message. Due to the controversy perpetuated by Cleland’s reaction, the ad was given widespread publicity by national and local television stations. Providing the requirement for an absolute sleeper effect to occur, the discounting cue appeared after the ad at the bottom of the viewer’s television screen. Even though Chambliss endured criticism for allegedly challenging Cleland’s patriotism, it appeared that the impact of the message grew larger than the memory of the source by the day of election.

Future Implications and Significance of Source Credibility

The 2002 U.S. Senate race between Max Cleland and Saxby Chambliss illustrates the characteristics of candidates likely to engage in negative advertising and the sleeper effect negative messages have on public attitude. The outcome of the election, a victory for Chambliss, further proved theories that negative advertising is effective. Prior to Chambliss’ win, a Republican never held Cleland’s seat (www.cnn.com, 2002). In fact, Chambliss’ victory contradicted several opinion polls throughout the race. An American Media poll in mid-October reported Cleland ahead of Chambliss, 47 percent to 41 percent, with a four percent margin of error (www.pbs.org, 2002). The Atlanta Journal Constitution and WSB television reported the Saturday preceding the election that Cleland led Chambliss 48 percent to 45 percent among people “certain to vote” (www.pbs.org, 2002). Although the negative impact of the attack advertisement lingers after the source of the attack is forgotten, are the credibility and truth behind the message important to public opinion? Though largely ineffective, Cleland released a “Truth Squad” web site rebutting Chambliss’ advertising accusations. Chambliss’ team asserted that every ad was based on fact and Perdue recognized, “Congress can prostitute themselves on any vote…but you can undo somebody with their voting record” (Perdue, 2003). Future candidates and consultants will be forced to recognize the power of what has become the most powerful campaign technique. Tom Perdue coaches, “You have to avoid mistakes, and keep moving. But you will make mistakes. When they happen, try to minimize them. When your opponent makes a mistake, take advantage of it. If you can do this, you might win” (Schanche, 2002).

Analysis of the Campaign

The nature of Max Cleland’s and Saxby Chambliss’ campaigns exemplify several principles of negative campaigning, including the characteristics of those candidates likely to use negative advertising found by Lau and Pomper (2001). The 2002 race demonstrated four out of the seven characteristics laid out by Lau and Pomper. Interestingly, Cleland was linked to the first attack and Chambliss demonstrated Lau and Pomper’s (2001) characteristic “candidates once attacked.” The first negative ad of the race, an attack on Chambliss by the Sierra Club, was followed by an endless exchange of attacks until the day of election. Also consistent with the pattern that challengers and Republicans readily use negative ads determined by Tinkham and Weaver Lariscy (1996) and Theilmann and White (1998), Republican challenger Chambliss’ campaign against Cleland consisted of several 10-second and 30-second attacks. Even though both candidates were well-funded, the candidates did not begin the race with equal name recognition. Supporting Tinkham and Weaver Lariscy’s (1995) study regarding the perception of incumbency advantage, Chambliss faced the battle with a substantial lack of name recognition relative to his Democratic opponent and resorted to negative advertising to attack Cleland. Chambliss appealed to emotion much more than Cleland during the race by using advertisements regarding national security, the boy scouts, and the morning-after pill. Illustrating O’Cass’ (2000) study that the more emotional the public becomes, the more the public tends to believe negative campaigns, Chambliss’ campaign was very effective. Even though Cleland and Chambliss used negative messages to a degree that could be considered “too negative” by scholars in agreement with Jasperson and Fan (2002), any violation or consequence of this principle was undermined by the sleeper effect. Weaver Lariscy and Tinkham (1999) concluded that the sleeper effect occurs when a negative message’s impact sustains and increases over time. Chambliss’ negative advertisements, namely the message including Osama bin Laden’s image, illustrated this principle as it became evident that the campaign was effective due to election results. Thus, Cleland and Chambliss’ campaigns ultimately supported the scholarly findings and principles previously discussed.

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