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The Battle for America 2010: In Connecticut Senate Race, It's Likability vs. Electability

Likability helps get politicians elected. That’s what recent studies on power found, reports Jonah Lehrer in the Wall Street Journal. And in his 1988 book The Power Game, Washington, D.C., journalist Hedrick Smith also points to that social skill as a primary source of influence.

If likability is that key a factor in elections, Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat, will win the race for U.S. Senate in Connecticut against Linda McMahon, his GOP opponent.

Voters such as New Haven’s Anthony Beedle and former Family Relations Circuit Court employee Sandra Laggis perceive Blumenthal as an official who fights for the people. His track record includes saving jobs at Electric Boat and Pratt & Whitney.  Beedle adds, “And no one likes a millionaire.”

The opinion of these two voters — that Blumenthal has always been there for them — is the populist message which Blumenthal transmits in his television commercials. Real people provide testimonials how the AG went to bat for them and stayed with the cause until it was resolved. The state’s memory bank is filled with media images of this attorney general either being actually on the scene as soon as trouble develops or making a public statement. He has been astute in managing his visibility — another trait Smith cites as important in getting and keeping power.

In contrast, McMahon brings to the campaign built-in challenges to likability. Her wealth, generated by founding the World Wrestling Federation [WWF], is conspicuous at exactly the wrong time. The state is enduring a no jobs recovery. Although the WWF created 500 CT jobs, another prominent number associated with McMahon is the $22 million of her own money she spent on the primary.

Her gender, notes political consultant Jan Selman, vice president of Georgia-based Selman and Associates, will also factor into her particular likability, both positively and negatively. “Women are judged and viewed differently from their male opposition,” Selman asserts. “They must walk a very fine line, between just tough enough and just feminine enough. The double standard is alive. In addition, the press is likely to focus on hairline, neckline and hemline.” Selman has consulted for a number of Georgia campaigns and currently serves on President Obama’s National Arts Policy Committee. She is not involved in the Connecticut race.

The Democrats have been attempting to influence the likability meter. For example, they are playing and replaying a WWF video in which McMahon appeared to kick a man in the groin.  “Many men say they respect McMahon,” opines Laggis, “but they tend to be scared of strong-willed women.”

In her numerous television commercials, McMahon addresses diverse aspects of her image. For instance, in a version of the early 1990s “Harry and Louise” commentators on health care reform, two 30-something upper-class women are featured in a series of ads. In each one, they start out skeptical of McMahon. Then they conclude that with her track record for getting things done, she will be able to shake up politics as usual in Washington, D.C. The ads also position the WWF as entertainment or a “soap opera,” undercutting the perception that it has been a setting or source for violence.

In other television advertising, McMahon reinforces her human side, including having been a mother who had experienced financial setbacks. The narrator describes how, with a second child on the way, she and her husband had to file for bankruptcy.  She also adopts the persona of a well-groomed but accessible woman, which plays to the conservative New England social ethos of the state.

On the other hand, likability does not automatically translate into electability. The latter requires plenty of money, the amount of which seems to escalate every campaign season. McMahon’s TV ads hammer on the theme that because she is independently wealthy she is not beholden to special interests. Her allegiance can be solely to the people, who are limited to $100 campaign contributions.

This pragmatic matter of financing a campaign, observes Gregg Perry whose Perry Group specializes in reputation management, can be a serious handicap for Blumenthal. In Rhode Island, Perry has handled issues related to state attorneys general. “This fund-raising problem,” finds Perry, “is one all AGs face. Many target major corporations that could hurt the quest to raise serious money. That is why traditionally jumping from AG to higher office is a difficult leap.” Perry is not involved in this Connecticut race.

Those powerful businesses Blumenthal took on are deep pockets he likely cannot tap. In Rhode Island, Democrat Attorney General Patrick Lynch has recently ended his campaign to run for governor. Lynch had a high profile from his association with lead paint litigation. The state Supreme Court tossed that lawsuit. Blumenthal has been more successful in winning his court cases and other battles. But that still leaves him, as Perry puts it, at a disadvantage “to compete against McMahon’s ‘hulking’ war-chest.”

This money factor can be compounded by Blumenthal’s “mis-spokes” regarding military service in Vietnam. That issue was heavily covered in local and national media. However, overall, reports Perry, “he has had few mis-steps over the years.”  Moreover, voters such as Laggis view the media focus on the Vietnam service issue as part of an unusually dirty campaign.  “There has been so much mud-slinging,” sighs Laggis, “and that was just one mistake which Blumenthal made.”

While likability and funding are important, political campaigns are at their heart performance art. The best show often wins, as the nation experienced in Jimmy Carter’s unexpected victory and, earlier, John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s astute handling of the new medium of television. During the counterculture 1960s and early 1970s, movement leaders such as Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman were masters of staging protests to maximize media attention as well as stir the passions of participants and the fear of those whose values and behavior were under attack.

Therefore, the outcome of this race might just be determined by the quality as well as the credibility of the showmanship. Walter Olson, senior fellow at the Cato Institute, picks up on that. He puts it this way: “So now Blumenthal, known for years of legal posturing and grandstanding against business opponents, will face off against someone known for building the World Wrestling Entertainment empire. I’d say the two operations actually resemble each other in many ways, except the spectacles Blumenthal puts on have been more stagy and less dignified, and the opponents getting beaten up aren’t there of their own free will.”

In addition to all the variables playing out in this campaign, it’s also being closely watched because a GOP win in this traditionally Democratic state could upset the balance of power in the U.S. Senate. The winner will replace old-line Democrat Christopher Dodd. Even if it’s Blumenthal, his values and style deviate significantly from Dodd’s.

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