Meg Whitman spends big in California but still trails Brown

Former eBay CEO Meg Whitman has spent $104 million on her California gubernatorial bid but trails Jerry Brown by three points. Will she be the next wealthy politician to fail at the polls?

Chris Park/AP
Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman speaks to supporters at the California Republican Party 2010 Fall Convention Friday, on Aug. 20, in San Diego.

Meg Whitman, the California Republican candidate for governor, has spent a record $104 million of her personal fortune on her campaign, blanketing the state in slick television ads and adding high-priced consultants to her pay roll.

But the former eBay chief executive still hasn't been able to move ahead of her Democratic opponent, California Attorney General Jerry Brown, who has reportedly spent $1.5 million on his campaign, according to the California Voter Foundation.

In an election season in which millionaires from California to Connecticut are vying for office, the struggling Whitman campaign shows that it often take more than deep pockets to win over voters. Indeed, wealthy politicians (think Ross Perot and Steve Forbes) who run self-financed campaigns lose more often than they win.

“She’s outspending Brown 86 to 1 and it’s still neck and neck,” says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political scientist at the University of Southern California. A July Public Policy Institute Poll puts Mr. Brown three points ahead of Ms. Whitman.

While Whitman’s paid television ads are seen across the state, Ms. Jeffe and others say Brown is enjoying plenty of free media because of his role as attorney general.

“People see Jerry Brown on TV and in the papers connecting with public policy,” says Hal Dash, CEO of Cerrell Associates, a Democratic consulting and strategy firm.

Mr. Dash says that the static poll numbers speak well of California voters in “seeing past the money.”

“Just because you are a rich person in California, that doesn’t guarantee you anything with voters here,” says Dash, noting that plenty of wealthy Californians have failed at the polls before.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is the exception to the rule, says Jeffe. Schwarzenegger spent $5 million of his own money in a 2003 special election after the recall of Democratic Gov. Gray Davis.

The other thing working against Whitman at the moment is the calendar, say experts.

“Most state voters are not really engaged until after Labor Day,” says Dash. “They’re not focused on this right now.”

But others argue that low voter interest is a result of the candidates' lack of focus on issues that they care about.

“Unfortunately, when campaigns are more about attacking one's opponent than giving the voters a detailed look at one's views, it can turn a lot of voters off to the process,” says Jessica Levinson, political reform director of the Center for Governmental Studies.

Much of the money that Whitman has spent so far has gone to attack ads.

“How stupid that neither is talking about issues that roughly one-third of the electorate – the undecided – think are important. It reminds me of fiddling while Rome burns. Ugh," adds Barbara O’Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at California State University in Sacramento.

Those issues are job creation, the state budget, and education, according to Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California.

“Voters want to hear more than just ‘I’m going to create job or fix schools’ they are in mode where they are very cynical against politicians and institutions and want to be sure they have real solutions,” Mr. Baldassare says.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of 5 free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.