For months, it has appeared that Republican billionaire Meg Whitman would be facing off against Democratic attorney general – and former governor – Jerry Brown in the California governor's race this fall.
Now, with just over a month to go before the Republican primary, Insurance Commissoner Steve Poizner has produced internal polling – from Public Opinion Strategies, the same firm that polled for Scott Brown in Massachusetts – that shows Ms. Whitman’s one-time lead of 48 percentage points has dropped to 10, and five outside all markets outside of San Francisco.
The poll of 800 likely primary voters, conducted this week, has a margin of error of 3.1 percent.
The Poizner campaign strategy from the beginning was to unload his message as close to the vote as possible. Mr. Poizner began running ads in mid-March, and this week hit Ms. Whitman on three fronts: An endorsement from popular state conservative Tom McClintock, a public debate on the issue of Arizona’s new immigration law, and the connection Whitman has to scandal-plagued Goldman Sachs.
The Whitman campaign did its best to downplay the poll’s findings. “Whatever they show … it’ll show a long road from whatever they’ve got him at to 50 percent and a victory in the general election,” Whitman campaign strategist Mike Murphy said in a call with reporters Wednesday. “We’re now in a debate over whether Steve Poizner will lose huge, lose medium, or lose a little tighter,” he said.
Whitman has been pounding the state with a reported $60 million in TV and radio ads, pushing the message that saving California requires running it “like a business.” That message may have backfired with arrival last month of the Goldman Sachs SEC probe, analysts say.
“Fortunately for Poizner, Whitman now seems somewhat embroiled in the Goldman Sachs scandal, which … seems to have given Poizner’s campaign a burst of energy,” says Jessica Levinson, political director for the Center for Governmental Studies. “Those who thought Poizner was out of the race are going to have to rethink their view of this now contentious gubernatorial primary fight.”
Poizner’s ads paint Whitman as a liberal who once supported Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer.The message Poizner wants to get out is that he is the conservative in the race.
“He is the only candidate in the race with a record of cutting spending, and he is the only candidate who is taking a hard stance on illegal immigration including supporting the new Arizona immigration law,” says Poizner communications director Jarrod Agen.
Whitman sunk a lot of money into her campaign early in the election cycle, says Ms. Levinson. “But her slipping poll numbers may indicate that her advertising bought her name recognition, but not solid support. Poizner's message, while getting to the voters later in the cycle, may be resonating more.”
The latest Field Poll, conducted in March, showed a Whitman with a nearly 50-point lead over Poizner.
Toppling Whitman, if it can be done, is only the beginning, analysts say. "In the weeks remaining, Poizner needs to show that he can beat Jerry Brown,” says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College.
“True, [Poizner] did win statewide office four years ago, but his opponent was comically inept. Jerry Brown is tough and smart. Poizner needs to make voters forget that he once called himself a ‘Schwarzenegger Republican.’ "
A recent public debate helped level the playing field, say analysts, with neither candidate stumbling or winning handily. But by just appearing with the other candidates, analysts say, Whitman was brought down to size from her expensive commercials.
For Whitman to stave off Poizner, Whitman needs to shake off the Goldman Sachs connection and shift the focus to other issues, Pitney says. “She has to convince voters that she is Ms. Goodwrench – a competent outsider who can fix what's broken,” says Pitney.