Meg Whitman had the kind of resources most candidates only dream of, and she was a political outsider in the quintessential anti-incumbent year. So what went wrong?
In the end, the vulgarity of Whitman’s spending trumped any real connection with the voters.
It’s one thing to have money. It’s another to flaunt it, and Whitman flaunted it from the moment she announced her campaign budget. Consequently, the story of her campaign was always less about substance and more about how much she was spending.
It started when she misread her primary opponent, Steve Poizner, and tried unsuccessfully to intimidate him into withdrawing from the race by making it clear how much she was willing to spend. And she never moved beyond the “big spender” image to show herself as an appealing and authentic person. That meant that when controversies arose — such as the revelation that she had employed an illegal immigrant — she didn’t have the kind of rapport with voters that would have allowed her to quickly rise above them.
Whitman certainly had the money to communicate her platform. Yet when I recently asked the graduate students in a political campaign course I teach what her main message was, they couldn’t say. And these are people who follow politics closely. They knew she’d spent close to $175 million on her campaign, but her poll-driven platform of cutting spending, creating jobs and fixing schools didn’t get through. The campaign was so excessive that long before election day, voters had tuned out.
The election’s direction should have been clear to the Whitman campaign when, despite her domination of the summer airwaves, Jerry Brown nonetheless remained competitive in polls. But instead of trying to salvage her flat campaign, Whitman’s strategists claimed that Brown was stalled. Did they not notice that he hadn’t yet started running ads?
Once Brown did start spending — and gaining in the polls — the Whitman campaign’s response was to pour ever more money into what was clearly a failed approach, which is exactly what Whitman has criticized California government for doing. It left voters wondering whether a candidate who spent that recklessly on her campaign was capable of being frugal as governor.
Some postelection analysis has focused on her inadequate showing among Latino voters. But her ambitious plan for a Republican breakthrough here missed the point. Latinos, like all voters, need to trust the candidate. Whitman’s sharp pivot, from “tough as nails” on immigration to billboards in Latino neighborhoods, left all voters wondering where she really stood.
Character is what ultimately can define the election for wealthy candidates. Voters assume that a rich candidate doesn’t need to steal from the public till. Still, voters want to know how a candidate earned his or her fortune. Here, too, Whitman was seemingly on solid ground: She helped grow a dynamic, modern, clean business. She was, on paper, the ideal self-funding candidate.
Her stumble was in failing to show the public who Meg Whitman is. If a candidate hasn’t established rapport with voters, then small obstacles can become insurmountable. Whitman could have prevented her past infrequent voting from becoming an issue by simply addressing it publicly before becoming a candidate. Instead, she waited until she was a candidate and then offered changing explanations, creating a credibility problem. She didn’t sufficiently distance herself from a discredited Wall Street, running as a country club Republican in a populist Republican year. And she fell hard when the issue of her housekeeper, Nicandra Diaz Santillan, came up.
The campaign had to have known that issue was lurking. Yet, again, Whitman failed to address it preemptively. Instead she seemed blindsided. And even as she was trying to explain how Diaz Santillan had been “part of the family,” the former housekeeper was describing tearfully how Whitman threw her away “like a piece of garbage.” When Whitman offered to take a lie-detector test, I knew she’d lost the race. If voters have so little trust in a candidate’s honesty that she has to make such an offer, they’re just not going to vote for her.
Fundamentally, Whitman never fully understood that for her to win, she needed to be liked. By the time her campaign realized she needed a persona, it was too late. She didn’t begin trying to connect with voters until the campaign was nearly over; even then, the scripting was patronizing. By then, too many voters had an unfavorable view. Brown’s voters were more satisfied with their choice than Whitman’s voters. That tells it all.
Could Whitman’s personality have been adapted for politics? Probably. Her political skills did improve as she campaigned. She is a quick study who needed honest, even brutal, advice. She could have been prepped better for the campaign, and for debates. But her political instincts remained off, as evidenced onstage in her joint appearance with Brown at a women’s conference. Challenged to pull negative TV ads, Brown seized the moment, saying he’d agree if Whitman would. She demurred. The result? Brown drew applause, Whitman boos.
We are told by Whitman’s advisors, who are already trying to distance themselves from the loss, that California is an overwhelmingly Democratic state with an unpopular Republican governor, and that this combination made a Republican win almost impossible. But in an equally blue state, the outspoken Chris Christie won in New Jersey.
Voters saw Meg as very much in the Arnold mold. And, because voters were more likely to blame incumbent Arnold Schwarzenegger for California’s problems than they were to blame incumbent Jerry Brown, that spelled trouble.
Brown managed to make lemonade out of the lemon of his incumbency, describing himself as someone with an “insider’s knowledge” and an “outsider’s mind. " In contrast, Whitman came across as having an “outsider’s knowledge” and an “insider’s mind.” And that made all the difference.
Arnold Steinberg is a Republican political strategist and analyst and the author of two graduate texts on politics and media.