Why Whitman and Brown, tied in California, won't talk issues

With the race for California governor in a virtual tie, Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown seem more interested in bashing each other than fixing the state's problems, analysts say.

Rich Pedroncelli/AP
Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman talks about job creation as she addresses a small crowd at Roseville Yamaha in Roseville, Calif., on June 29.

Republican Meg Whitman and Democrat Jerry Brown are effectively tied in the race for California governor, according to the latest Field Poll. But what is defining the race at the moment, political analysts say, is both candidates' refusal to speak about what they would do in office.

“While tens of millions of dollars are being spent on their duel, with even heavier expenditures looming, virtually none of their campaign effluent is telling us what either would do as governor six months hence,” writes the leading political columnist in the state, Dan Walters, in the Sacramento Bee.

“So far, it's been a political version of a squabble between two nursery schoolers over who touched the other first. Whitman's TV ads portray Brown as an over-the-hill hippie who failed in his first stint as governor while he and his surrogates picture her as a heartless and clueless businesswoman trying to buy the election.”

Analysts agree the political back-and-forth is making voters angry in a state looking for answers to its struggling economy, 12.5 percent unemployment, unbalanced state budget, failing public education system, crumbling highways, and looming water crisis.

“Every poll says people want them to talk about issues that matter to them,” says Barbara O’Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at Sacramento State University. “Part of it is thirty-second-soundbite-driven politics. Part of it is not wanting to say anything that will offend a subgroup. The Field poll is a perfectly good reason to launch a discussion on changing the political narrative.”

But that discussion to change the political narrative is unlikely to happen, say most analysts. The strategy seems to be “get elected first, then we’ll talk.”

“Both Brown and Whitman will be as non-committal as possible so that they don’t alienate their bases or undecided voters. Their first priority is to get elected; then they will worry about governing,” says Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies. The candidates' unwillingness to commit is also a tactic that gives them a wider latitude to present solutions after the election, he says.

Whitman, who has never run for political office, spent $90 million of her own money to defeat state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner in the June primary. Even though her spending has not yet vaulted her into the lead for the general election in November, the Field analysis shows that a very large proportion (82 percent) of the state’s likely voters have now formed an initial opinion of her.

This is the fourth statewide Field Poll comparing Brown and Whitman, and the trend has been toward Whitman, who started out far behind Brown in October of 2009, and led him by three points in March.

Analysts say that all the negative back-and-forth has ended up increasing both candidates' negatives: Whitman is now at 42 percent negative vs. 40 percent favorable, while Brown’s unfavorable numbers have grown from 25 percent to 40 percent, and 42 percent favorable. But instead of talking about issues, the attacks on both sides just seem to keep growing.

"They are spending much of their time slashing each other. The campaign so far is a cross between Dilbert and Freddy Krueger,” says Jack Pitney, political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. “At all levels, the best solution is for journalists, bloggers, and ordinary citizens to keep pressing candidates on two simple questions: What programs would you cut? What taxes would you raise?”

If the election remains close, analysts say the deciding factor is likely to be who is more successful among the roughly 20 percent of voters who don't identify with either party.

Walters points out that Whitman edges Brown among independents in the Field Poll, but roughly a fifth of them remain undecided. His disdain on behalf of the California electorate is clear. “One of the two will eventually win this election, and it would be nice if we knew before the fact what the winner is likely to do once in office," Walters writes. "Otherwise, for us, this contest is nothing more than a crapshoot.”

When asked when Whitman might get specific about California’s problems, campaign spokesperson Sarah Pompeii replied:

"We know there will be many polls during this race. We're confident that on Election Day in November, Californians will choose Meg's leadership to create jobs, cut spending and improve education.”

The Jerry Brown campaign did not respond to similar requests for comment.

The first of a 10-date debate and town-hall meeting series is planned for July 31.


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