It is not a good sign that Republican gubernatorial challenger Bob Stefanowski has taken to calling his opponent – Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont – a liar. And it’s not because it’s not a nice thing to say. It is because it reflects a Stefanowski campaign that is not establishing the perceived differences with the Democratic incumbent that it must in order to win the election in November.
Stefanowski is losing the communication war fought to define the “difference” between the candidates in voters’ minds – the very thing that determines election outcomes.
It isn’t for lack of trying.
Stefanowski repeatedly states – in TV ads, a recent debate, and in news interviews – that Lamont is dissembling about his own fiscal record and falsely claiming that Stefanowski is anti-choice on abortion.
Political campaigns – like other marketing efforts operating in the context of a binary choice between two options (think Coke v. Pepsi) – come down to perceived differences. Voters decide based on their perception of how the two options (in this case candidates) are different from one another.
After all, when presented with a choice between two options, we instinctively seek to find the differences. Attributes of the two options that are perceived as being the same offer no basis to choose, and they are scurried off our thinking – pushed off as being irrelevant. It is the differences that form the basis for decisions.
If we perceive no differences, the choice is seen as being of no consequence, and the audience sometimes chooses to make no choice at all. Often people explain their reasons for not voting as “politicians are all the same” or “what’s the difference.” We need to perceive differences in order to choose or even to be motivated to choose.
That is why many ad campaigns use the word “difference” or some variation to try to establish a unique identifier that will push people to select their product. But using the word “difference” isn’t the same as actually establishing it in the audience’s mind.
This isn’t a game that only Republicans play. Each side in the Connecticut governor’s race asserts that the “real difference” between the two are ones that the campaigns believe help drive votes its way. At the same time, each side is sending messages designed to take away or negate the difference the other side is working to establish.
Stefanowski, who lost to Lamont in 2018 by 3 points and now is trailing by double digits in recent polls, says the real difference is over taxes, the economy, and inflation. He argues Lamont has raised taxes and is responsible for Connecticut no longer being “affordable.”
Lamont says the real difference is over social issues like abortion and gun control, where national Republican positions don’t sit well with Connecticut’s left-leaning electorate. Democrats, including Lamont, are using the “extreme” word a lot.
And as each campaign sets out its stake claiming the “real difference,” both sides are working mightily to take away the other sides’ difference makers.
So Lamont’s ads tell voters not to believe Stefanowski’s “negative” campaign claims and tout Lamont’s record of erasing huge deficits that he inherited upon entering office in 2019. If one believes the recent polls showing the Democrat with double-digit leads, Lamont has effectively erased the difference on fiscal and economic issues that Stefanowski is trying to establish. This is absolutely critical as polls also show that inflation and the economy are the top concerns of voters.
And Stefanowski can’t tell us enough times that abortion in Connecticut will remain legal with him as governor despite the Supreme Court’s decision to overrule Roe and many red states enacting severe restrictions in the wake. (The truth is that even if Stefanowski wanted to restrict abortions, hefty Democratic margins in both chambers of the legislature won’t let that happen.)
The Republican businessman is frustrated with continuing Democratic claims that he is anti-choice and questions from reporters that reflect the perception among some that abortion is a real difference between the two candidates. A recent poll by Emerson College showed that a third of Connecticut residents believe abortion should be legal in all cases, and that climbs to over 50% when asked if abortions should be legal within the first 20 weeks of pregnancy.
And with Lamont’s lead in the polls being almost entirely attributable to his strength among women, we can expect Stefanowski to continue to plead with Connecticut that he will not change our abortion laws. It won’t make a difference.