If the last couple of polls are to be believed, Tom Foley has royally squandered a gift of an election, handing his lead back to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. This happened for two reasons: first, Tom Foley is a lousy candidate, and second, Dan Malloy is very good at attacking his opponent.
None of these are particularly inspiring reasons. Such is political life in 2014.
Let’s take a look at these polls, first. The most recent Quinnipiac poll and a September Public Policy Polling gave Malloy an eight point lead. This is a stark contrast to the past few months of polling, which mostly painted a pretty dismal picture for Malloy.
Weirdly, Foley now claims that he wasn’t in the lead after all, but that the race was always tied. This is nonsense. Three of the five polls conducted before October showed Foley with a lead, while the other two showed a tie. The two polls showing a tie were in March and September, while the polls showing a lead fell between. Polling has been thin for this race, but there’s enough evidence to suggest that Foley did in fact have a lead during the summer, and he blew it.
What’s actually going on here is that the Malloy campaign has finally gotten itself into gear and has released a blizzard of ads reminding voters of why they disliked Foley enough to not bother electing him back in 2010. A feisty, combative debate performance by Malloy helped, of course, but really what we’re seeing is the outcome of the only effective strategy anyone can muster for this election: make everyone believe the other guy is so loathsome that a cockroach would make a better governor.
This strategy is the Foley campaign’s bread and butter. They and their various allied PACs have been attacking Malloy nonstop for the better part of a year, but now they’re on the receiving end. They have done a lousy job of fighting back, which is why Malloy is now trending up while Foley is trending down.
The other guy who is trending upward is Joe Visconti, the independent candidate, who is at 9 percent. Visconti seems to be drawing better from Democrats and independents than Republicans, which at first seems a little odd. Do 9 percent of Democrats really agree with Visconti’s decidedly pro-gun views?
Nah. They just don’t want to vote for any of the two on the top line. Can you blame them?
The thing about negative campaigning is that it works — that’s why everybody does it. It gets the party faithful up off the couch and to the polls, especially in years when their own candidates are less than inspiring. It also, as is clear, moves the polls. President Barack Obama was able to defeat Mitt Romney in part by painting a negative picture of him. Malloy is hoping to do the same to Foley, who, like Romney, is an awkward businessman who has a tendency to stick his foot in his mouth.
But what happens when a candidate wins an election based almost entirely on negative campaigning? How much political capital does someone really have if they are elected because of how much they made people fear their opponent? And what happens when someone deeply damaged by negative attacks gets into office? This, in part, is why Dan Malloy has never been a popular governor — not even during the beginning of his term. If Foley should manage to win, he’ll find the same is true for him.
The problem is that negative ads and negative campaign speeches last only a moment in voters’ minds, but they do remember the larger narratives. They also reinforce the political biases of partisans by turning the opposition into dangerous Others. This kind of attack makes compromise much harder once the election is over, and contributes to polarization. The disastrous results of this are already apparent at the national level.
Part of what fuels the over-reliance on negative campaigning is the nominating process, while another, more pernicious part is the huge amounts of unregulated money that PACs use to make attack ads. The end result of all that energy, time, and money will be that we get to choose between bad and worse, and everyone loses just a bit more faith in our political process.
In the meantime, thanks to the tightening of the race, Connecticut voters should brace themselves for three more weeks of attacks.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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