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.