At least they said they did Tuesday.
Many voters who did show up to choose candidates in Tuesday’s party primaries (turnout was scant) largely had the economy on their minds. They’re worried about jobs.
Some also said they were disgusted by the onslaught of harsh, personal attack TV ads and mailed flyers that dominated both parties’ gubernatorial campaigns as well as some underticket races in the closing weeks.
Voters always say that. Then they vote against candidates whose reputations were trashed by attack ads. That’s the conventional wisdom. That’s why candidates spend millions of dollars on them every year.
But some voters insisted they did cast votes against negative ads.
Well, at least in part. Retiree theater techie Bill Taylor of New Haven’s Westville neighborhood said he had trouble deciding between Democratic gubernatorial candidates Ned Lamont and Dan Malloy. “The campaign made the difference. It turned me against Lamont,” Taylor said.
Actually, Malloy was the candidate who first aired negative ads in that race, reviving unproven charges of employment discrimination and workforce reductions in Lamont’s business background. But then Lamont returned fire—and proceeded to pour an extra $3 million into his campaign in closing weeks to finance a fusillade of wall-to-wall blistering TV ads and daily mailed flyers accusing Malloy of being a crook stealing public money for his personal use, based on allegations for which he was cleared years ago. (Lamont’s running mate also sent out flyers with photos making Malloy’s running mate look, well, washed out and unpleasant.)
“Lamont was raising things known to be factually untrue,” said Pat Taylor, a University of New Haven retiree who also planned to vote for Malloy.
Branford Republican David Mazur said he opted not to vote in the gubernatorial primary specifically because of the mudfight between candidates Michael Fedele and Tom Foley.
“When I came in here I decided that the only race I would vote for was the Senate,” Mazur said at the Third District polls, in the Short Beach neighborhood. “And it was going to be Rob Simmons. The reason why was because all the other ads were so negative it disgusted me. On either side, no matter who they were. And Rob Simmons was the only one who seemed to have a positive air.”
Simmons barely had money for TV ads: His opponent in the Republican U.S. Senate primary, Linda McMahon, has outspent him 22 to 1. After losing the party convention to her in April, then sitting out most of the campaign, Simmons, a former U.S. representative, reemerged on the trail and reinvented himself as the anti-candidate, trying to turn the financial deficit into an advantage and tap into voter disgust. He did air two ads, both positive. He trailed McMahon by 22 points in the last Quinnipiac University poll.
“I got robo calls all weekend. I was answering and hanging up so I wouldn’t have to listen to the ring,” Mazur complained. “As far as I am concerned, the one who gives the positive campaign is the one who has a better character. Out to do the best job you can. As for the negative campaigners, you don’t know whether the person is who the other guy thinks he will tell you he is. Or the guy who is saying it is a liar.”
Over at the Community House polling station in downtown Branford’s First District, Republican Ann Murray cast her vote for Simmons, too, because his campaign had “no negativity,” she said.
But negative ads don’t always stick to the issuer as much as to the target. Consider Christine Blakney’s vote at the Community House, for instance. She said she selected Michael Fedele, the attack dog in the GOP gubernatorial primary, because “he is not really into dirty campaigning and trashing other people so that he looks better. I like that.”
In District Seven, in Branford’s Stony Creek section, Democrat Barbara Marks also insisted the negative campaigning drove her decision.
“It was my impression that the negative campaigning came most from Lamont,” said Marks, an artist. “Usually I am not influenced by campaign mailings. I prefer to be informed by more objective sources. This election, however, Lamont’s negative campaign mailings have made a lasting impression. They leave me wondering why Lamont has chosen to spend his time convincing me not to vote for Malloy rather than articulating why I should vote for Lamont.”
Lamont, Schwartz: They Work
As he wrapped up his campaign, Lamont himself clearly wasn’t at peace with the negative onslaught.
Throughout the final weeks, he insisted he didn’t want to go negative. But he remembered how negative ads defined him, for the worse, in his 2006 bid for a U.S. Senate seat. He remembered how Dan Malloy had closed the gap against a different candidate with negative ads in the 2006 gubernatorial primary. So he felt he had to be ready to fight back if Malloy went negative.
Even as Lamont’s anti-Malloy attack ads continued to dominate TV Monday night, Lamont struck a positive note at a final campaign rally in New Haven’s Pitkin Plaza. He didn’t mention Malloy.
“I don’t want you voting against anybody,” he said. “Mary and I want to give you something to vote for.”
He was asked afterwards how he felt about spending millions of dollars to trash Malloy. Lamont had declared he wanted to avoid negative ads—but would respond if Malloy started televising attacks. Malloy did, and Lamont dug deep into his pocket to fire back, and then some, not just with responses to Malloy’s attacks, but with a litany of attacks on Malloy, too.
“I didn’t like it,” Lamont said. “I wanted to give people something to believe in.”
But he said he had no choice but to defend himself.
“We got hit. We got hit hard,” he said. “We responded.”
Or, as Lamont said a week earlier when questioned about the ads following a debate with Malloy, “they work.”
Douglas Schwartz, director of the Quinnipiac University poll, agreed with Lamont. Exhibit A for Schwartz: The Fedele-Foley race. Last month Schwartz’s poll showed Fedele trailing Foley by 35 points among likely voters in the GOP gubernatorial primary. Then Fedele received public campaign funds and went on a TV ad blitz accusing Foley’s management company of responsibility for the failure of a textile mill in Bibb City, Georgia. This week Schwartz’s organization released a new poll. Fedele now trailed by just 8 points.
The negative ads “definitely” were what closed the margin, Schwartz observed. “When Fedele started advertising, Foley’s negatives went way up… The Bibb ad kept hammering him. It brought Foley down. It worked in a case like Foley because people didn’t know who he was. He was a newcomer to the Connecticut scene.”
Discerning the efficacy of attack ads in the Lamont race is trickier. Both Malloy and Lamont had previously run for statewide office, so they had some name recognition. Both campaigns have organized field operations; both candidates have spent 2010 campaigning hard in towns throughout the state.
Lamont, like Foley, had the money to air positive ads about himself for months before his opponent did. He led comfortably in polls.
Like Fedele, Malloy received public money last month and started airing negative ads. He cut the gap between him and Lamont among likely primary voters from 9 to 5 percent.
Then Lamont started unleashing not just response ads, but the attack ads on Malloy. Yet Lamont did not regain support. In the last Q poll, released Monday, Lamont’s lead narrowed further to 3 percent, within the margin of error.
Perhaps, Schwartz said, Lamont’s ads succeeded in “stopping the bleeding.” Or maybe other factors—like the attractiveness of the candidates’ pitches, or the success of their canvassers and robo calls—played a role. Or maybe, as the unrepresentative sampling of local voters Tuesday morning suggested, negatives ads may have in some case backfired. Unlike in the GOP primary, the answer won’t be clear. The prospect of future attack ads, though, probably will be: More of them.