Another down-to-the-wire governor's race

Major-party candidates have run consistently negative campaigns

When Republican Tom Foley met with business owners in New London early this month, he enjoyed a 6-point lead over Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy in the most recent Quinnipiac University poll.

Although he didn't believe the margin was really that wide - "We're up slightly, not that far," he told an audience at Goldy's Restaurant - he seemed supremely confident that in his second bid for the governor's seat, the die had been all but cast.

"I don't think there's anything that's going to come out that's going to save this governor," Foley said, meaning a glowing jobs report or some other economic measure that could rescue Malloy. "Nothing's going to change between now and Nov. 4 - unless we make some kind of egregious mistake. After the election, Heather (Somers, the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor) and I will be sailing this ship."

Less than a week later, Foley's lead had vanished.

A Quinnipiac poll on Oct. 8 showed Foley and Malloy each with 43 percent of the vote, while petitioning candidate Joe Visconti, a Republican, drew a creditable 9 percent, up from 7 percent in the previous poll. And then last Wednesday, the latest Quinnipiac poll had Malloy moving ahead of Foley by 1 percentage point, 43 to 42, with Visconti still at 9 percent.

What happened to Foley's lead? Had Malloy's relentlessly negative ads succeeded in turning the tide?

While some believe the governor's personal attacks on Foley in an Oct. 2 debate at the University of Connecticut - the night before Foley's campaign stop in New London - marked a shift in the race, Ronald Schurin, a UConn professor who has been studying the gubernatorial campaigns, said he isn't convinced it was a turning point.

"There are two ways of looking at the polls," Schurin said.

One is that the Sept. 10 poll in which Foley led by 6 points was accurate and that the advantage indeed shifted to Malloy in October. But, Schurin said, it also could be that the September poll simply was inaccurate, as even Foley had allowed it might have been, and that the closeness of subsequent polls, including the campaigns' internal sampling, has fostered all the negativity.

"If you're way ahead, you can be positive, but if you're behind or dead even, you have to bring your opponent down," said Schurin, an associate professor of political science. And negative campaigning has proven to be effective.

"Everybody deplores it, but it works," he said.

One way it works is that it convinces those who are not politically engaged to stay home. So a candidate whose base is bigger than his or her opponent's figures to be in good shape. And in Connecticut, there are more registered Democratic voters than registered Republicans.

Attacking one's opponent also may be the preferred strategy of a candidate, like Malloy, who has negative favorability ratings with likely voters.

"If they don't like you, you have to make your opponent even less likable," Schurin said.

Last week's Quinnipiac poll showed that neither major-party candidate is the voters' darling. It found that 50 percent of likely voters had an unfavorable opinion of Malloy, compared with 42 percent who had a favorable opinion. Forty-six percent of voters had an unfavorable opinion of Foley while 40 percent had a favorable opinion.

Douglas Schwartz, the Quinnipiac poll's director, noted that Foley's favorability rating "continues to tumble" from poll to poll.

"The more voters get to know him, the less they like him," Schwartz concluded. "The good news for Foley is that Malloy's favorability is actually slightly worse."

Amid the dislike surrounding the two leading candidates, Joe Visconti, a former West Hartford town councilor and unsuccessful candidate for Congress, at the least represents a more amiable alternative. After being excluded from earlier debates, he joined Foley and Malloy in an Oct. 16 debate at the Garde Arts Center in New London and accorded himself well, in Schurin's view.

"People who didn't want to vote for Malloy but were not enamored of Foley might have felt they had a bit of a safe harbor in voting for Visconti," the professor said. "Visconti presented himself as other than a pure fringe candidate. On budget matters, voters who are not comfortable with Foley might be comfortable with Visconti. He (Visconti) did nothing to turn people away."

Unfortunately for Visconti, last week's Quinnipiac poll suggested his debate appearance did little to help him overcome his "unknown" status. While 11 percent of voters viewed him favorably and 8 percent viewed him unfavorably, 80 percent said they hadn't heard enough about him to have an opinion.

'Mean and nasty'

After falling just 6,000 votes shy of Malloy in the 2010 election, Foley has focused his 2014 campaign on Malloy's performance as governor.

He has charged that Malloy has failed to spur economic growth and create jobs, has raised taxes after promising he wouldn't, and generally has done nothing to improve the state's small business climate.

Foley has promised to cut the sales tax by a half percent and eliminate the business entity tax.

"His basic strategy is 'vote for me because I'm not Malloy,'" Schurin said of Foley. "The general narrative of the campaign has been for Foley to say Malloy has been a terrible governor and that he's mean and nasty. For Malloy, it's been to say Foley's a greedy businessman who's mean and nasty."

In an interview last week with The Day's editorial board, the governor defended his campaign.

"This guy's been banging the crap out of me for two-and-a-half years, and when I finally pushed back, I'm the bad guy?" Malloy said. "He questions my veracity? 'Malloy Math,' he calls it - what's that? I'll back up every statistic I quote."

Foley has disputed Malloy's claim that his administration has created 60,000 jobs, preferring to point out that 3,600 jobs were lost in August alone.

However, the 3,600 figure was revised down to 1,200 in the state Department of Labor's September jobs report, the last such report before the election. The report showed the state added 11,500 private-sector jobs in September, driving down the unemployment rate to 6.4 percent, the lowest it has been in nearly six years.

Presumably, those are not the kind of economic indicators Foley expected.

Malloy has fought Foley's challenge by raising questions about Foley's decades-old record as a business owner and investor, his failure to release his state tax returns and details of his federal tax returns, and a lack of specifics in his economic plan.

With nine days left before the election, it's anyone's guess whether the candidates' personal attacks can move uncommitted voters. Last week's Quinnipiac poll showed 18 percent of voters who favored a candidate might change their mind.

"They're reaching for people in the middle," said Schurin, who was loathe to predict the election's outcome. "Those voters may be more susceptible to endorsements and get-out-the-vote efforts."

Malloy's margins in the cities carried him to his narrow victory in 2010, a scenario that Schurin believes could well play out again.

But it's really too close to call, he said.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

Twitter: @bjhallenbeck

 

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2014 Election Guide: Governor

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