There have been election seasons in America during which the candidates politely and respectfully outlined their stands on the issues before the electorate, then sat back to await the election returns. In fact, it still happens—probably more often than you think. But put away those romantic, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington notions that reasonableness and civility ever held exclusive sway over the American political landscape. Political foes portrayed Abraham Lincoln as a backwoods yokel. Even Thomas Jefferson had a sharp edge to him. In 1791, he advised James Madison, who was sparring with Alexander Hamilton over the powers of the federal government, “For God’s sake, take up your pen, select the most striking heresies, and cut Hamilton to pieces in the face of the public!”
“American politics has always been nasty,” says UVA politics professor Larry Sabato (Col ’74).
Yet most observers agree that even by historical standards, political discourse today is rancorous and getting worse. One former Sabato student, a media consultant, reports that whereas two-thirds of the campaign ads he produced two decades ago were positive in tone, today 18 of 20 are negative. (The other two typically outline a candidate’s biography and trumpet his endorsements.) Sabato estimates that of every dollar spent on a campaign, 70 cents goes toward negative campaign ads.
Technology allows more thorough research that enables precise targeting of ever-more-closely tailored messages. “In Jefferson’s day, and even in Nixon’s day—even in Reagan’s and Carter’s day—negative campaigning was an art. What’s happened now is that we have turned it into a science,” says Sean T. O’Brien (Col ’88, Grad ’94).
O’Brien is executive director of UVA’s Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership, an organization that Bob Lewis, a veteran Associated Press political reporter, says “might be that still, small voice out there saying ‘can’t we disagree agreeably?’”
In the early 1990s, two movers and shakers in the Charlottesville community, attorney Leigh Middleditch (Col ’51) and investment manager Michael Bills (Col ’78), were alarmed by the decline of political discourse. Says O’Brien, “They decided that what we needed in Virginia was a nonpartisan organization that would go out and train people to be involved in politics and government, and would look beyond partisanship and toward the greater good for Virginia, and beyond the squabbling and into how to engage the public.”
Such an organization, the Virginia Institute for Political Leadership, was founded in 1993 and later renamed for major benefactor Thomas C. Sorensen, younger brother of former John F. Kennedy speechwriter Theodore C. Sorensen. At its heart are two seminars. The Political Leaders Program allows participants to thoroughly explore legislative issues facing Virginia. The Candidate Training Program is a weekend tutorial for novice candidates in all aspects of running a campaign. Both feature expert presentations from respected speakers, most of whom donate their time. The institute also offers programs for high school and college leaders, and is currently developing a program for political journalists and a series of public policy forums.
The content alone is enough to make admission to either program a hot ticket in Virginia political circles. But tother elements set the institute apart: infused throughout both programs is a healthy dose of ethics, a strong flavor of bipartisanship and an earnest attempt to foster dialogue among the participants—Republicans and Democrats, Northern Virginians and Southsiders, men and women and all manner of social and political identifiers.
“There are always skeptics in every class who basically think, ‘I’m just here to get the information, and I’m not going to succumb to the message of civility and bipartisanship,’” O’Brien says. “Typically, they’re brought around to the notion that ‘this can be good for my campaign and it will be good for Virginia.’”
In the Political Leaders Program, much of the bipartisan bridge-building is organic, the natural byproduct of 35 people gathering monthly at various locations across the state for 10 months. “We start with important but less emotional issues early in the program, and work to more emotional, more challenging issues, so that they have a basis to have a conversation and are still able to go out afterward to the bar and play pool and have a beer,” O’Brien says. “That’s an important component of the program.”
The hope is that friendships formed during the program will create respect across party lines. In the Virginia General Assembly, where Sorensen graduates hold 13 seats in the House of Delegates and one in the Senate, the pace is unrelenting and the opportunities to confer informally are few, says Del. Jennifer McClellan (Law ’97), a Richmond Democrat who completed both of the Sorensen programs. Legislators often go about their business with a wary eye toward the calendar, she says. “Winning in November rather than governing in January—it’s easy to get caught up in that. Why work with somebody if, in November, you’re going to be trying to take their seat?”
The Sorensen program helped her realize that while “generally, Republicans and Democrats want the same things,” she says, “they just have different ideas about how to get there.”
“We talk about shared values,” O’Brien says. “We go back to the basic principles, and discover that Democrats and Republicans and independents believe in things like compassion, honesty, integrity, fairness, respect, trustworthiness. It’s in how you implement those things that the differences come in.”
O’Brien cites literacy to illustrate his point. Virtually everyone would agree that the ability to read is vital. But should children be taught phonics or whole language? In public schools or private? Opinions may differ, but the values underlying them are the same.
Still, the differences may be hard to overcome. Political parties today march in greater ideological lockstep. “Compromise is only rarely part of the legislative process,” Sabato says. “It used to be much more common because parties were loose confederations of individuals. Democrats and Republicans don’t have very much in common anymore. They stand for different things.”
Those differences can be exacerbated by an ever-more-crammed legislative calendar that allows little time for informal meetings with those across the aisle. “The Political Leadership Program is the first time I ever sat down and talked to Republicans about issues outside a campaign,” McClellan says.
In the three-day Candidate Training Program, held every January, the ethics message is more explicit. The agenda includes sessions on campaign organization, communication strategies, fund raising, media relations and even opposition research. “But before we do any of that, we spend about three hours talking about ethics—ethics in public service, ethics in campaigns,” O’Brien says. “We use that as a framework on which we hang all of the other presentations. We encourage them to ask themselves this question: What’s the line I’m not willing to cross to get elected? Where is your line?”
Few candidates will actually approach their personal borders, at least in local elections. Last year in Virginia, nearly 1,700 candidates appeared on ballots on nine separate polling days, including primaries, special elections and the November general election. Only a handful of races drew much attention for being unseemly.
Lynwood Lewis Jr. was in one of those antagonistic races in 2003. A Republican was retiring from the House of Delegates district that includes the Eastern Shore and part of Norfolk, leaving an open seat that Democrats thought they had a good shot to win. Money poured into the race from all over the state.
Lewis, the Democratic candidate, found himself being skewered by ads unfairly charging that he favored repealing the death penalty, letting the infamous “Beltway Sniper” go free, drug legalization and free college educations for felons. Modern campaign practice seemed to require that Lewis unleash a barrage of retaliatory ads of his own; after all, isn’t an attack unanswered an attack agreed to?
But Lewis thought back to his Sorensen training. “I think it reinforces in you the idea that there is a higher standard above just winning,” he says. “It is how you play the game. You’re taught that as a kid, but you kind of lose that as an adult.”
Lewis didn’t exactly turn the other cheek. “I responded—not through advertising or anything, but through the media,” he says. After Lewis gave interviews refuting the charges, his opponent, Thomas B. Dix Jr., suspended his direct-mail campaign. Lewis ended up winning 59 percent of the vote, a victory he credits to his opponent’s tactics. “You can get away with that stuff in Northern Virginia, because people don’t know each other,” he says. “You can’t get away with that here.”
Politics, Sorensen-style, are easier on the local scale. The more voters who know the candidates personally, the less likely it is that they will believe personal attacks. Plus, it is more difficult to smear someone today whom you might see in the grocery store tomorrow. Says Dave Norris, who defeated a fellow Sorensen grad in a race for Charlottesville City Council, “Why go out of the way to be nasty about your neighbor?”
Which begs the question: Can “the Sorensen Way” work at higher levels, where media and money and political consultants push winning, at any cost, to the top of the agenda? Political observers outside Virginia seem intrigued. O’Brien has talked with people in a half-dozen other states about exporting the Sorensen model, while applications continue to pour in for the original programs. There were nearly 90 applicants for the 35 spots in this year’s Political Leadership Program, and he anticipated that the Candidate Training Program would have no trouble filling its quota.
There are skeptics. “In the end, most will do what it takes to get elected,” says The Associated Press’ Lewis. “In a perfect world, maybe [the Sorensen model would work]. But this isn’t a perfect world. It can be effective if the public gets tired of slash-and-burn politics.”
Even many of the true-believing Sorensen graduates offer some echo of that pragmatic view. Still, that doesn’t seem to shake their faith in the Sorensen Way. There must be an advocate for greater civility in politics, they say.
“I don’t think they should teach it any other way,” says Mark Dudenhefer, a Sorensen graduate who won a seat on the Stafford County Board of Supervisors. “It’s a voice that needs to be heard.”
Ultimately, the success of the program will be judged by the electorate. If they punish politicians who run negative campaigns, or seem to prefer scoring political points over making public policy, the politicians will take notice.
“At the end of the day, the people will speak,” says Virginia Del. Robert Hurt, R-Pittsylvania, a Sorensen alum. “When the American people believe a politician is putting his own interests ahead of his own people, they are going to throw him out.
“There’s something very humbling, and very comforting, about that to me.”
Can Negative Be Positive?
Just what is “negative” campaigning, anyway? It seems that one person’s mudslinging is another’s tough, issue-oriented advertisement.
“Negative is in the eye of the beholder,” says Del. Danny Marshall, R-Danville, who attended the Sorensen Institute’s Candidate Training Program in 2001. “You have to show differences between candidate A and candidate B. The difficulty is in how you do that. Some people think that just showing differences is negative campaigning.”
Even negative ads have their place, says politics professor Larry J. Sabato. “We want to know some of the negative. Do we really want to just read press releases put together by the parties? Can we trust that?” So-called contrast ads can be very useful, he says, “as long as they are accurate—and a lot of them are accurate.”
Al Weed is a Democrat who faced a tough task in 2006: unseating Virgil Goode, a Republican congressman from Virginia’s Fifth District. Weed, who had garnered just 36 percent of the vote in a previous run two years earlier, knew that to have a chance he needed to convince voters to “fire Virgil.”
He unveiled a tough TV ad that questioned Goode’s link to the congressional lobbying scandals. Goode had received campaign contributions from Mitchell Wade, founder of defense contractor MZM Inc. Furthermore, Wade had provided employees with at least $46,000 to contribute to Goode, circumventing federal campaign laws. Later, Wade testified that he gave the money to Goode because he “had the ability to request appropriations that would benefit MZM.” In fact, Goode did subsequently request $9 million for an MZM facility in his district and a related program (both later canceled in the wake of MZM’s legal difficulties).
Weed’s ad pictured Goode flanked by two MZM figures, each labeled “Felon.” When it came out that only one had been convicted of a felony, the labels were changed to “Guilty.” A voice-over declared that Goode “took illegal money more than once,” and asserted, “Washington changed Virgil Goode, because Virgil Goode took the money. Now he works for them.”
Weed—who attended Sorensen’s Candidate Training Program in 2003—defends the advertisements as “the right thing to do,” and said he would have run more of them if he had more money. “I don’t think negative campaigning is pointing out the failures of the incumbent. We never said anything negative about Virgil and never implied any corruption.”
For his part, Goode maintains that he was unaware of the illegal contributions. Once he was made aware of them, he donated the money to charities throughout the district, including rescue squads and volunteer fire companies. He was never charged with wrongdoing.
The voters seemed unimpressed with Weed’s strategy. Despite the anti-incumbent tide that swept Democrats into control of Congress, Goode easily won re-election with 60 percent of the vote.
Weed’s ads fell flat, Sabato says, because “[Goode] wasn’t charged with anything, he gave all the money back, and it was obvious he knew nothing about it. You can’t manufacture anything—it has to be real.”
Character issues have a legitimate role in campaigns, says Sorensen executive director Sean T. O’Brien. “People often say, ‘I don’t vote for a party, I vote for a person.’ That’s another reason why you should be thinking about ethics and the tone of your campaign and what kind of messages you’re trying to get out there to the voters.”