Notes from Nick: Campaigning on personality

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By Nick DAngelo

In 2010, Linda McMahon ran for the United State Senate in Connecticut as a business woman who built a successful company, an outsider who would shake up Washington and a tough CEO who could provide real economic solutions. She lost by double digits. But after dumping tens of millions into her second bid this year, McMahon has drastically changed her image. Her constant television commercials no longer stress her time at WWE, the company she built, but instead emphasize her experience as a mother and grandmother. The softened narrative seems to be working too—the Senate race is dead even. Last week, “RealClearPolitics” shifted Connecticut to the Toss-Up category, where it joins 11 other states in determining control of the U.S. Senate.

Campaigning on personality is not a new phenomenon, but it is a strategy that is emerging as a cornerstone of operation in the 2012 cycle. Three other U.S. Senate elections that should not be competitive by traditional standards, have morphed into neck-and-neck races as the two candidates jockey for the “likeability factor.”

North Dakota is about as red a state as you can get. Despite that, for the past two decades the same two Democrats have represented the Peace Garden State in Washington. After Byron Dorgan, serving since 1992, retired in 2010, a Republican won the seat with over 70 percent of the vote. This year, the second long-time Democrat, Kent Conrad, is retiring. The race was seen as a shoe-in for Republicans, and one of the givens in their quest for a majority in 2013. Heidi Heitkamp changed that. A former state attorney general, Heitkamp has wide name recognition in the sprawling Roughrider state. But she isn’t trumpeting the ‘woman factor’ as McMahon is doing on the other side of the country. Instead, the Democrat is playing off an image as a tough rancher, a strong prosecutor and true Midwesterner—and someone who won’t always side with her party standard-bearer, President Barack Obama. As McMahon distances herself from Mitt Romney, Heitkamp is also following a line of independence. It’s working. With Heitkamp closing the gap within the margin of error in an average of polling, North Dakota is in the Toss-Up category.

Democrats are also finding a competitive edge in Arizona. Another seat with long-serving incumbents, Arizona hasn’t had a new U.S. senator since 1995 when Jon Kyl was sworn-in. Kyl is stepping aside this year, endorsing the young, Tea Party favorite, Congressman Jeff Flake. Flake led by double-digits during the summer months, but the messages of his Democrat challenger, Richard Carmona, are starting to resonate. Growing up in Harlem as the son of immigrants, and eventually rising to become Surgeon General is a pretty airtight political biography. It’s playing well with Arizona’s large Hispanic population, as well as swing-voters and moderate Republicans. Usually wary of Democrats, red Arizona is willing to accept one that served in the Bush White House. While Arizona is not as close as Connecticut or North Dakota, it’s by no means a decided election.

Personality is playing the strongest role in the most competitive race in the country—in deep blue Massachusetts. Casting himself as a strong independent, Republican Scott Brown was not supposed to win an upset victory two years ago—and he’s not supposed to win now. The image of an “every-man,” pick-up truck included, is one that resonates well with the middle-income workforce of industrialized Massachusetts, even inner Boston, a traditionally liberal electorate.

For her part, Democrat heavyweight Elizabeth Warren has been unable to shake the portrait of lofty, professorial elitist that Brown has painted of her. During their first debate, Brown hit hard with personal attacks, referring to his opponent only as “Professor Warren,” a clear reinforcement of the partisan image. Despite initial worries from Republican insiders that the strategy could backfire, Brown still enjoys a remarkably high favorability rating. In a state that President Obama is expected to carry by a wide margin, Brown will need to obtain nearly 25 percent of Warren’s Democratic vote to pull off a victory. With polls switching almost daily between slight leads for either candidate, Massachusetts is a race that will come down to personality.

Even in the presidential election, image makes a difference. After the first debate two weeks ago, Governor Romney saw his own favorability rating rise significantly. While President Obama still maintains a solid personal showing, his strategy remains to create an election based on Romney the man, rather than any policy issue. Like it or not, imagery and narrative often play a larger role in politics than any issue or policy proposal. In the end, we vote for individuals.

 

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