Hefty spending key to Meg Whitman's late lead in GOP primary

Former eBay CEO Meg Whitman surged in the last week of campaigning before Tuesday's gubernatorial primary in California, widening her lead over insurance commissioner Steve Poizner.

Rich Pedroncelli/AP
Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman speaks to a crowd of mostly senior citizens during an appearance in Roseville, Calif. on Thursday. The former eBay CEO leads insurance commissioner Steve Poizner by 25 points going into Tuesday's primary.

As the most expensive primary election campaign in California history draws to a close, billionaire and former eBay CEO Meg Whitman has jumped to a 2-to-1 lead over state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner in the race for the Republican nomination for governor, according to a just-released California Field Poll. Whitman is favored 51 percent to 26 over Poizner among likely Republican voters just days from Tuesday’s vote.

The 11th-hour poll is a relief to Whitman and a surprise to Poizner, who weeks ago had narrowed a 50-point gap to close to within 10 points of Whitman. Some say the reason for Whitman's late break is another poll showing that she stands a better chance against presumed Democratic nominee Jerry Brown.

But most analysts seem to agree the poll reflects Meg Whitman’s pocketbook more than her political savvy or ability to lead.

“This shows money can buy you love even in a seesaw race like this one,” says Barbara O’Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at Sacramento State University. Whitman has spent more than $80 million on her campaign.

“The Whitman lead shows that the enormous sums she has spent on advertising are paying off,” says Jessica Levinson, political reform director of the Center for Governmental Studies (CGS). “Unfortunately, in California, the ability to buy television ads can still translate into a lead in the polls. Even with the advent of the internet, money still talks in campaigns.”

Poizner has also spent wads of cash – over $20 million – but has not concentrated on forwarding an agenda so much as complaining over Whitman’s pocketbook, says Ms. Levinson.

“Poizner’s campaign seems to have focused more on attacking Whitman than on promoting himself,” she says. “This is a strategy that may not have gained real traction with the voters.”

Whitman’s surge in the polls occurred as she spent more money than any candidate in California history to tell voters that the ailing state needs to “be run like a business.” She touted her own history as CEO of eBay as evidence that she is the candidate that can turn the state around.

That message hit a speed bump when it looked as if Poizner might tie her to negative fallout from the Goldman Sachs fraud case. Whitman had served briefly on a Sachs board nearly a decade before, and the implications of guilt by association have appeared not to stick.

“Whitman's path to the nomination started with her bank account,” says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. “Her campaign plan would be hard for others to copy because its first opening line would read: 'Be a billionaire.' "

Pitney points out that Poizner is also a billionaire and that his choice to spend it focusing on Whitman’s opposition to Arizona’s tough new immigration law did not gain traction.

“Poizner has hit Whitman for opposing [Arizona’s new immigration law] but the issue has not shifted many votes,” says Pitney.

Some analysts say that is because Whitman has been savvy about getting her message out about leading California, and showing Poizner’s weaknesses in detail.

“Whitman has run a terrific campaign – very few mistakes,” says Robert Stern, president of CGS.


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