Call it what you want, but the situation facing Connecticut Democrats is a conundrum – that being a situation or problem with a difficult or even impossible solution.
The 1,800 or so delegates to last weekend’s Democratic State Convention have spoken. Nearly seven in ten threw their support behind Dan Malloy for governor, while a fairly significant number 30 percent voted for Ned Lamont.
With Lamont easily reaching the 15 percent threshold needed to force a full Democratic primary, the final decision about who shall lead the Democrats into the November election will now shift to an August 10 vote in which all Democratic electors can participate.
The fact that this critical choice will be made by about 750,000 Democratic voters instead of the 1,800 party leaders and political insiders should be cause for celebration, at least for those who believe in a more open and public party nominating process. However, when it comes to gubernatorial primaries, the Democratic Party has a stunning and unparalleled record of seeing the primary process completely undermine the eventual nominee’s ability to win the general election.
This occurs because in order to win, candidates must not only spend a significant amount of money, time, and energy, but they must successfully differentiate themselves from their opponents. This traditionally means that they must not only give voters a clear and concise reason to vote for them, they must be equally effective in telling voters why their opponent is not the right person for the job.
By the time the votes are tallied on August 10, we can be fairly sure that the candidates and their campaigns will be worn down, if not worn out. The campaigns will have spent millions of dollars to bolster their name recognition and improve their images, while attacking their opponents. Some call this tactic negative campaigning, but others like to describe it as a responsible effort to compare and contrast the two candidates.
Seeking to capitalize on relatively minor policy differences or transgressions, the campaign process has become one in which the goal is to destroy your opponent’s standing in the hopes of making them un-electable or at least ensuring that a majority of voters will not support them.
In the parlance and jargon of campaign advertising, this fundamental campaign strategy is called “laying down two tracks”. While the primary track (of communication and advertising) is designed to build up a candidate’s “positives”, the secondary track is designed to push up the opponent’s “negatives.”
In every Democratic gubernatorial primary in the past two decades, these campaign tactics have resulted in the winning candidate alienating their opponent’s supporters making it impossible for the Democrat to create a winning coalition in November. We know from experience that whoever wins the primary will likely come out limping.
At the same time, Ned Lamont is facing a particular challenge because only about 250,000 of the Connecticut’s approximately 750,000 registered Democrats will likely vote in the Democratic primary.
In a world in which a candidate’s name recognition is one of the leading factors in determining a voter’s final choice, Lamont has been capitalizing on the fact that he presently enjoys far greater name recognition than Malloy among all voters. Lamont can continue using his millions of dollars of personal wealth to keep building his name recognition throughout the primary.
However, the difference in name recognition (and the corresponding benefit to the candidate who has the name recognition) drops dramatically when the universe of voters shifts from all registered voters to all Democratic voters down to the relatively small group of what would be called likely Democratic primary voters.
Primary voters are by far the most politically active and politically connected of the electorate. The pool of primary voters is made up of local elected and appointed officials, campaign activists, political contributors, state employees, union members, and members of particular advocacy groups. They are also the most progressive voters in the state.
In 2006, both Lamont and Malloy faced these same voters, except that Lamont was running against U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman for the U.S. Senate nomination and Malloy was running against New Haven Mayor John DeStefano for the gubernatorial nomination. In the 2006 primary, Lamont squeezed past Lieberman by receiving 146,000 votes while Malloy barely lost to DeStefano, garnering 131,000 votes. It’s fair to say that Connecticut likely primary voters already know the two 2010 contenders for the Democratic nomination and certainly any minor advantage in name recognition that Lamont presently has will be long gone by the August 10 primary.
Without any advantage in name recognition, both Lamont and Malloy will be under tremendous pressure to shift away from a campaign of building up their name recognition to a more aggressive strategy of working to persuade primary voters why one candidate is better than the other.
In the end that means engaging in tactics and strategies that seek to damage the other candidate’s image.
Democrats can hope that the two contenders will “play nice” and not lose sight of the fact that the real task is electing a Democratic Governor for the first time in 20 years, but the sad reality is that playing to win comes with a cost.
Meanwhile, as the Democrats “duke it out”, they can remain hopeful that the Republican primary will prove even more damaging to their party’s eventual nominee.
Jonathan Pelto served as a member of the House of Representatives from 1984-1993. He was Deputy Majority Leader and member of the Appropriations Committees during the income tax debate of 1991. He presently works as a strategic communications consultant.