Experience counts; big money doesn’t

Many things seemed different about California in the days after Tuesday’s election. Television screens blared advertisements for movies and cars and devices to clip your pet’s claws, but for the first time in almost a year, Meg Whitman’s face was nowhere to be seen. Nor was Jerry Brown’s, nor Barbara Boxer’s, nor Carly Fiorina’s. Much to the dismay of the media ad sellers to whom dollars had flowed as if from a fire hose, the campaign was over and the spigot had been turned off.

But there were also several things that remained the same about California last week, and all of them had accrued to the benefit of Democrats.

Most of the truisms about California politics turned out to be just that: true. Taken together, the lessons of the campaign were enough to give the most optimistic Republican a case of indigestion. A selection:

Wealthy candidates usually lose.


Neither former EBay chief Whitman nor former Hewlett-Packard leader Fiorina lost specifically because of her money. Both started their races essentially unknown to voters, and it was their money that bought them a place at the table.

But two corollaries to a big fortune prove troublesome. Most of the time they knock wealthy candidates out in the primaries; this year Whitman and Fiorina made it through to the general election, but they hit the same unsuccessful ending experienced by other rich candidates.

First, long corporate careers tend to provide opportunities for chieftains to be cast as heartless folks who laid off rank-and-file workers to benefit the bottom line. Since bottom lines don’t vote, and rank-and-file workers do, that is a problem. Democrat Boxer closed out her Senate reelection race with an ad in which former Hewlett-Packard workers laid the blame for their ruined lives at Fiorina’s feet. In an election made turbulent by economic fears, the ad walloped Fiorina at the same time she was trying to convince voters that she would best be able to bring jobs back to California.

Second, wealthy candidates tend to insist on dropping into politics at the top, meaning that they skip all the honing that takes place in lower, less observed races.

Whitman’s campaign was evidence, behaving at times like a corporation under siege. For long stretches, the candidate was kept from the sort of exchanges with voters or reporters that could have honed her ability to think on her feet. Although Whitman improved dramatically over the campaign, she ended it still parroting lines from her ads when talking to voters — not a tactic likely to convince them that there was a real person underneath the artifice. Her money, moreover, fueled an extravagant advertising campaign that by the end turned more voters against Whitman than toward her.

The fall of both Whitman’s and Fiorina’s campaigns is likely to sober up the next rich California candidate, or any rich candidate who might want to appeal to California in a presidential race. (Not coincidentally, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg came to the state to back Whitman, a move widely seen as a way to ingratiate himself should he decide to run for president in 2012).

“It may be sending a message to Michael Bloomberg: You can’t buy your way to the presidential election,” said Robert M. Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies.

Voters typically want a governor with experience.

The Republican candidates took great pains to cast themselves as refreshing exceptions to the kinds of political veterans who normally populate state capitols and Washington offices. But it turned out that, particularly in the governor’s race, voters like experience.

According to exit polls, 54% of those who cast ballots for governor wanted “an insider who knows how to get things done,” and only 36% wanted “an outsider who wants to shake things up.” Those results came as no surprise to Jim Brulte, the former GOP legislative leader who backed Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner in the primary for governor.

Whitman, he said, was hamstrung from the beginning because she had never served in statewide office. Most governors in the last half-century — Democrats Pat Brown, Jerry Brown and Gray Davis and Republicans George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson — held state office when they won the governorship. Only Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger did not, though as Brulte pointed out, they were extremely, and positively, well known when they won.

“When California voters pick a chief executive, they know that governing this state is tough, and so they look for that experience,” he said. “And if a candidate doesn’t have it, they tend not to be elected governor.”

Voters historically have cut Senate candidates some slack because a senator is not a singular executive but one of 100 legislators. That is one reason, analysts suggested, that Fiorina pulled in more votes than did Whitman.

Biology isn’t destiny, but ideology is.

Both Whitman’s and Fiorina’s campaigns were premised on the notion that they could pick the lock that Democrats have had on women voters. They spent much of their time courting women and framing issues in ways meant to attract women. Toward the end, Whitman was carpet-bombing California homes with fold-out mailers that touted her husband and sons and the lessons she had learned from her own mother.

On Tuesday, Whitman and Fiorina both lost women by 16 points.

That is because for all the attention given gender, women back women candidates when the candidates agree with them on issues and when the candidates convince women that they understand voters’ lives. The same reasons, that is, that men back women candidates. The reason that gender gaps exist in many races, in California and nationally, is that women are ideologically more attuned to Democratic candidates.

Tuesday’s exit poll showed that 30% of women described themselves as liberal, compared to 24% for men. Only 31% of women called themselves conservative, to 35% for men.

“The notion that somehow a lot of women vote for a female candidate just because she’s female doesn’t hold water,” said Darry Sragow, a Democratic strategist.

There are still two Californias.

Overall, coastal voters sided with Boxer, 56% to 40%; inland voters sided with Fiorina 55% to 39%. Coastal voters sided with Brown by 21 points; inland voters sided with Whitman by 9. Coastal voters narrowly supported Proposition 19, which would have legalized marijuana; inland voters opposed it. Coastal voters strongly opposed the “tea party”; inland voters strongly supported it.

Tellingly, the only congressional seats Democrats were in danger of losing were two hotly contested inland seats. Some coastal Democrats saw their vote tallies ebb, but they still won overwhelmingly.

In inland areas, Republican political veteran Allan Hoffenblum said, the major GOP candidates did well. But in modern California, there are just not enough of those places.

“It’s turned into a regional party,” he said.

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