The Democratic nominating process has finally come to an end. Dan Malloy and Nancy Wyman have been selected to lead the Democratic slate into the Nov. 2 election. 

While Democratic pundits and partisans remain cautious, there is a growing sense that despite the vitriolic rhetoric the two Democratic contenders hurled at each other over the last month, the Democratic Party may actually be poised to re-take control of the Governor’s office after 20 years in the cold.

Why a sense of optimism when the field of battle is still littered with the residue left behind from weeks of harsh, negative, and often misleading attack ads?

First, credit needs to be given to the two candidates and especially to Ned Lamont who came up short in his effort to wrestle the gubernatorial nomination from Malloy. Lamont’s call for unity after losing the primary was both immediate and genuine. 

Second, while the two candidates, and especially their campaign operatives, seemed intensely engaged in the task of attacking the character of their perceived enemy, it seemed like the broader circle of Malloy and Lamont supporters remained committed to the bigger and more important task of winning in November. 

Finally, it certainly seems that the Republican Party is even more committed to snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory. 

As the two political parties pivot into the November campaign phase, Democrats can feel a slight sense of relief. Tom Foley, the Republican gubernatorial nominee,  must contend with the noise associated with having the WWE’s Linda McMahon gobbling up media attention and television time in her race for the U.S. Senate.

Furthermore, Foley is still dealing with the fallout from the news that not only was he arrested a couple of times for what appear to be domestic violence and anger management issues, but he may have committed an even more serious crime by failing to tell the truth about those incidents to the federal government.  In addition, he is now paired with a lieutenant governor candidate who has spent the last few months attacking him on a wide variety of issues.

Of course, despite the sense that Republicans are in even worse shape, the battle between Malloy and Lamont will have some consequences. 

With the Iraq War on people’s minds the historic battle between U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman and Lamont brought more than 40 percent of the registered Democrats to the polls in 2006.  Now, only four years later, the two candidates and their $12 million dollars or so in political expenditures attracted only about half that number, meaning Malloy must still educate, persuade, and mobilize a vast majority of Democrats if he wants to win in November. 

Why the huge drop in political participation?  First, there was no driving issue like the Iraq War to galvanize voters.  Second, the policy differences between the two Democratic contenders were minimal.  And finally, as a number of newspaper editorials have noted in the last few days, the continuous barrage of negative advertising seemed to turn off a lot of voters in both parties.

So what did we learn from the Aug. 10 results?

We learned that while the Quinnipiac University poll reported that “likely primary voters” were evenly split between Malloy and Lamont, there is a fundamental difference between those who report they are likely to vote and those that actually vote.  The eventual primary voters were decidedly far more supportive of Malloy than Lamont.  The most likely explanation of this phenomenon is that as the universe of Democratic primary voters contracted, the role of Democratic Party activists became even more dominant.  With participation falling to well below 200,000 voters, those who did participate were almost members of the core Democratic base—Democratic Town Committee members, local elected and appointed officials, campaign contributors, and members of key constituencies such as public employees, union members, and pro-choice and equality advocates. 

From the beginning of his campaign, Lamont and his political operation seemed focused almost exclusively on the general election rather than those who participate in the Democratic primary and nominating process. Lamont spent his time talking about how Connecticut government would benefit from his business experience.  Whether it was alluding to the notion that government can be run like a business or his somewhat confusing position on paid sick leave, Lamont seemed fixated on articulating a moderate agenda to help him win over moderate voters in the general election. This strategy is far less effective with traditional Democratic voters. 

Lamont’s decision to dismiss the new public financing system and instead rely primarily on his own funds to pay for his campaign compounded his problems. While support or opposition to public financing is not generally a “voting issue” for a lot of voters, in this case it helped frame the differences between the two.  Lamont claimed that he still strongly supported campaign finance reform, but would not participate in Connecticut’s new landmark public financing system. In the end, this sent a troubling signal to many Democratic voters. Lamont’s three-week refusal to participate in one-on-one debates also made him appear weak to these key voters because it seemed he was trying to duck a substantive debate and hide behind his lead in the polls.

Together these factors transformed the race from one in which the candidates were neck and neck to one in which Malloy ended up winning by a comfortable margin.

Putting all of that aside, the Democratic gubernatorial campaign of 2010 reminds us of another important truth about modern American politics: television advertising continues to have a profound impact on public opinion.

According to the Quinnipiac University poll, over the last three weeks of the primary campaign as Malloy and Lamont spent millions on television ads, the number of people who felt they knew enough about the candidates to have an opinion increased dramatically. The percent of those who said they couldn’t form an opinion about Malloy because they didn’t know enough about him dropped from a whopping 60 percent in the middle of July to 19 percent in the days before the primary. During the same period, the number who didn’t know enough about Lamont dropped from 25 percent to 12 percent.

Even more interesting is the impact that these primarily negative television ads had on “likely voters.” During the last three weeks of the race, Malloy’s overall favorable rating went from 50 percent to 57 percent, but those who had a negative opinion of Malloy jumped from 8 percent to 20 percent. At the same time, Ned Lamont’s favorable rating inched upward from 60 percent to 62 percent, but his negative rating increased from 12 percent to 23 percent.

It would seem that all of their efforts failed to build much support for either candidate, but certainly increased the negative impression of each.
How all of this will influence voters on Nov. 2 has yet to be determined but it is certainly food for thought as the Democrats work to recapture the governor’s office and come to grips with the fact that their nominee was selected with the support of only about 15 percent of the state’s registered Democrats.

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, including work on Kevin Lembo’s campaign for state comptroller.