The magnitude of John DeStefano Jr.’s loss last Tuesday, which came despite a whirlwind of support for other Democrats around the country, may have had more to do with his campaign strategy than the bad luck of facing a wildly popular incumbent.
DeStefano’s appeal to urban areas — whether intentional or not — may have backfired, according to exit polls and city by city breakdowns of Election Day results. Although DeStefano received many votes in the state’s cities, they did not represent a large enough cross section of Connecticut’s voting population to lessen the gap between DeStefano and incumbent governor M. Jodi Rell.
Even more damaging to DeStefano’s candidacy was that he did not manage to ride the anti-Republican sentiment that propelled Democratic candidates throughout the state to victories over Republican incumbents. According to exit polling conducted by CNN, about half of the voters who disapproved of President George W. Bush ’68 said they had nonetheless chosen Rell, a Republican who won by more than 300,000 votes and a margin of 28 percent in the gubernatorial race.
But while the timing for many Democrats seemed perfect last Tuesday, DeStefano and his campaign staff maintain that the year just was not his — and that it would not have been regardless of how the campaign, which began more than three years ago, had been run.
“So much of politics is timing, and the timing just wasn’t right,” campaign spokesman Derek Slap said. “We feel like we ran a good campaign … I think it was other factors in play that made it a very challenging race.”
‘Large Cities, Small Returns’
DeStefano’s challenge was not limited to any one demographic or region. He carried only seven towns and received more than 60 percent of the vote in only New Haven and Hartford, two of the state’s largest cities. He received 56 percent of the vote in Bridgeport, the most populous — and poorest — city in Connecticut.
DeStefano’s appeal to voters who had heard of him and his work in New Haven before the race began did not translate into support at the polls, as DeStefano lost particularly badly in every city bordering New Haven, from North Haven and East Haven to Woodbridge and Hamden.
One explanation for the magnitude of DeStefano’s loss was the strategy behind his policy platform — or rather, the lack thereof.
Whitney Haring-Smith ’07, DeStefano’s deputy policy director, said the platform was not based on what would or would not appeal to a particular demographic. He said DeStefano argued for issues that he felt were right, such as universal health care, reducing electricity rates and increasing the minimum wage.
“In every case, we looked for the right answer instead of the answer that would satisfy some voter algorithm,” Haring-Smith said. “At the end of the day, we were [not] looking for an … answer that was driven by political calculations.”
Haring-Smith said as a policy director, it was never made clear to him what voter demographics were being targeted, which he said is evidence that policy and strategy were separate realms on the DeStefano campaign.
In the end, DeStefano had far greater success among urban voters, but they only comprised 16 percent of the overall voting demographic. In large cities, 48 percent of voters chose DeStefano and 51 percent chose Rell, the closest margin of any geographic demographic.
DeStefano also called for transportation improvements, which Slap said he expected to gain him votes across demographic divides. For whatever reason — whether the campaign failed to connect issues with target constituencies or whether luck is to blame for pinning DeStefano against an incumbent with unprecedented levels of popularity — DeStefano did not succeed in crossing the demographic divide.
Rich Harris, Rell’s campaign spokesman, attributed DeStefano’s loss to bad timing. Rell, he said, was just too popular.
“[The breakdown] truly is phenomenal,” Rich said. “Having worked for the governor for the better part of three years, I attribute it to the governor being the governor.”
There was one other missing link that contributed to DeStefano’s loss, which was so dramatic that networks called the race for Rell just one minute after polls closed: the connection between himself and the national Democratic Party’s platform.
According to the CNN poll, only 48 percent of voters who disapproved of Bush voted for DeStefano, including just 57 percent of voters who strongly disapproved of Bush. Approximately four of 10 voters who wanted the Democrats to take control of the Senate chose Rell for governor.
Overall, only 57 percent of voters who described themselves as “liberal” chose DeStefano, as Rell soared to victory with 70 percent of the independent vote and 38 percent of the Democratic vote, as well as the support of almost all Republicans.
Anti-Bush sentiment would have been hard for DeStefano to capitalize on — gubernatorial races are less intertwined with national political sentiment than federal elections, such the showdown between Ned Lamont SOM ’80 and Joe Lieberman ’64 LAW ’67 — but the results indicate a clear failure by DeStefano to link himself to the national trend that benefited New England Democratic candidates for congressional offices this year.
Campaign spokesman Slap said DeStefano failed to take advantage of Rell’s party affiliation because she deliberately failed to appear whenever Bush administration officials visited Connecticut, even though she was campaigning for national Republican candidates throughout the state.
But Rich said that Rell had no such intention. Visits, he said, were either scheduled at the last minute or overlapped with important events Rell had to attend as governor.
For much of the race, DeStefano also seemed to be campaigning at a distance from national politics: DeStefano’s initial support for Lieberman prevented him from associating himself with Lamont until after the Aug. 8 Democratic Primary, when Lamont became the clear Democratic nominee.
At a campaign rally three days before Election Day, however, Lamont did appear with DeStefano in New Haven’s Federal Plaza. Everyone cheered as DeStefano jumped on stage, waved his hands, and shouted, “Welcome to New Haven!”
But no DeStefano campaign signs were in sight.