How Meg Whitman dropped 10 points behind Jerry Brown

Meg Whitman, the Republican nominee for California governor, has been hurt by an undocumented housekeeper scandal, political inexperience, and perhaps even her own attack ads.

Lenny Ignelzi/AP
California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman speaks to invited guests at a campaign stop Wednesday in San Diego.

With five days until the election, a California Field poll shows Republican Meg Whitman trailing Democrat Jerry Brown by 10 points in the race for governor. Last month the same poll showed the two in a virtual tie.

How did that happen?

In the end, say analysts, heavy campaign spending – $142 million of her own money at last count – was unable to overcome Ms. Whitman's political inexperience and the news that she employed an undocumented housekeeper for nearly a decade.

Californians already tried an outsider with millions of his own money – Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger – and are not happy with the outcome. Now, in a time of trouble, it seems a state that already leans Democratic is searching for a known quantity in Mr. Brown, who has been California's governor before.

Whitman’s money, trumpeted early on as a difference-maker in the race, might have even contributed to negative opinions of her, says Barbara O’Connor, director of the Institute for Study of Politics and Media at California State University, Sacramento.

She has pummeled California airwaves for months with ads painting Brown’s 40-year career in California politics as a failure. But the ads appear not to have had the desired effect.

When Whitman began her first major advertising blitz in March, 40 percent of state voters had a favorable view of her and 27 percent viewed her negatively. Now, her unfavorable ratings have nearly doubled to 51 percent, the Field poll found.

“Her negatives continued to grow as people were reminded day after day that Whitman was spending more time trashing Jerry Brown than laying out her own plans for the state’s future,” says Ms. O’Connor. “This state is really hurting, and people wanted to know what her specific vision was.... They feel she never told them.”

These problems were exacerbated by the revelations about Whitman's housekeeper, whom she subsequently fired. Attorney Gloria Allred, who represented the housekeeper, made allegations of abuse and disrespect.

“To hear that this immigrant worker endured years of possible abuse at the hands of someone who wants to be a leader for the state was definitely a turnoff for Latinos who, although not uniformly, largely see the issue of immigration as a moral issue,” says Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Human Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.

At one point, polls suggested that Whitman was running well among Latinos. Now Latino support for her has plummeted.

Whitman had a small chance to begin to turn things around this week at Maria Shriver’s “The Women’s Conference” in Long Beach, Calif. In a conversation with Brown and Schwarzenegger, moderator and "Today Show" host Matt Lauer asked Whitman and Brown if they would pledge to end all negative ads in the last week before the election.

The crowd cheered the idea. As the front-runner, threw the ball into Whitman's court: He would if Whitman did. Whitman hedged and was loudly booed.

“She had a chance to catch a Hail Mary pass,” says political author Lara Brown. “But she dropped it.”

Whitman lacks political experience, and the Brown campaign has tried to link her to Schwarzenegger, the one-time outsider whose approval ratings now hover near 23 percent, identical to those of former Gov. Gray Davis when Schwarzenegger replaced him in a 2003 recall election. A new Brown ad, called "Echo," plays on Whitman's similarities to Schwarzenegger by running side-by-side quotes of the two that are almost identical.

The situation puts many California voters in a tough spot. “While not being in love with Jerry Brown, voters feel that at least he knows how to run the governor’s office because he already has,” says Hal Dash, president and CEO of Cerrell & Associates, a Democratic strategy consulting firm. “They don’t have a lot of passion about it, but they want to give the office keys to Brown.”

Can Whitman pull it out? “It appears that Whitman is going to have to come from behind to score what would now have to be termed an upset,” says Matthew Kerbel, a political scientist at Villanova University. “The only way to do this in a state as vast as California is with a massive ad campaign, but Whitman may be suffering diminishing returns because she has saturated the airwaves for so long.”

The Whitman camp claims the latest Field Poll is inaccurate. It has released two separate internal polls which put the race at too close to call.

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