Whitman demonstrates the power of her money
Meg Whitman’s record-breaking spending in the race for governor has enabled her campaign to blanket California with more TV ads and mailers than any other in state history, while also tapping new technologies to further broaden her reach.
With nine weeks left until election day, Whitman has donated $104 million of her own money to the campaign, more than any other candidate in California history and within striking distance of the national record for a non-presidential contest, the $109 million spent by businessman Michael Bloomberg to secure a third term as mayor of New York City.
Those donations have allowed her to target her campaign mailings to the smallest subsets of voters and sort out which television shows are popular among independent voters. (It turns out they are big fans of “Bones,” the crime show rife with romantic tension, on which Whitman has aired ads.)
Dozens of outside consultants and a paid staff the size of some presidential campaigns run an operation that seems to be the living embodiment of Whitman’s book title: “The Power of Many.” After record amounts spent on television advertising, mail and ground organization, there has even been enough money left over to sponsor a youth soccer team.
“She has the money to do everything,” said Garry South, a Democratic consultant who ran Gray Davis’ campaigns for governor, “and she is doing everything.”
The heart of the race is still to come, yet Whitman’s personal donations already represent more than twice the amount Arnold Schwarzenegger spent in the last gubernatorial election from all sources of money.
Her campaign spent $25 million on television over the summer, more than what Schwarzenegger spent on TV in his yearlong reelection effort. By the beginning of July, she had spent $7.5 million sending mail to voters, almost double Schwarzenegger’s 2006 tally and a figure that does not count the more recent flurry of mail against her November rival, Democrat Jerry Brown.
Overall, she has nearly tripled the previous California record of personal donations to a campaign, set in 1998 by Democratic businessman and gubernatorial candidate Al Checchi.
Still, for all the spending, polls show Whitman and Brown in a competitive race. Although her campaign points to the millions of dollars organized labor is pouring into the contest on Brown’s behalf, that spending pales in comparison to Whitman’s.
Whitman campaign officials say her personal donations were needed to introduce the former EBay chief and first-time candidate to California voters, to whom she was a mystery a year ago.
“We’re doing things much more aggressively than they’ve ever been done before,” said spokesman Tucker Bounds. “The frequency of the activity and the size of the political organization is an enormous investment, but we believe it will pay off on election day.”
In its ability to do more of everything, Whitman’s campaign most resembles that of President Obama, who was able to translate his immense fundraising operation into a deep use of traditional campaign tactics and a broad reach into new ones, including those harnessing the Internet for his political benefit.
Much attention has been drawn to Whitman’s television outlay, but her spending in less-visible political arenas is eye-opening as well.
Through June, Whitman had spent more than $1.2 million on polling and research, dolling out nearly $227,000 to two firms in June alone.
Democratic consultant Darry Sragow said a typical candidate might spend $300,000 on polling in the primary and a like sum in the general election. Whitman’s figures suggest a sharply different strategy than anything seen before.
“They know as much as anybody could know about the mind-set of the California electorate,” he said.
Allan Hoffenblum, a former Republican consultant who runs the Target Book, a nonpartisan compendium of political races, said Whitman was “doing stuff that is on the level of what an incumbent president would be doing running for reelection.”
Whitman’s research contributes to a detailed voter file that identifies voters by their issue interests and then targets them through an aggressive direct-mail program. Whitman’s mail effort, and her simultaneous television barrage, was devastating to her primary election rival, Steve Poizner. His campaign estimates she sent as many as 20 mailers to Republican homes in the last month of the campaign.
Whitman is now unloading on Brown, releasing ads and mail pieces almost weekly. According to the Brown campaign, Whitman’s ads showed up at least 170,000 times in state media markets from the primary through third week of August, even as multiple mailers were arriving at selected voters’ homes.
The campaign’s infrastructure, both human and otherwise, is far larger than California has seen before. Whitman paid 56 individuals or firms $9.7 million for consulting services through June, more than double Schwarzenegger’s yearlong spending.
At the top of the ticket: Mike Murphy, a former Schwarzenegger political advisor. His firm, Bonaparte Films, gets $90,000 a month, on top of a $1-million payment Whitman made to another Murphy movie company in 2008. At least half a dozen other firms receive at least $20,000 a month.
The Republican nominee has also spent $4.2 million on salaries and benefits for 75 staffers and $953,000 more for their travel, lodging and meals. The top 10 staffers make at least $10,000 a month, with an average salary of between $4,000 and $6,000 a month for the rest.
Trackers follow Brown with smart phones that can send live video of him to a “war room,” where aides launch responses before a Brown event ends. Consultants have designed two websites, one attacking Brown’s record, the other attacking the leadership of one of his biggest backers, the California Nurses Assn.
Apart from those traditional campaign methods, Whitman’s effort is relying on newer techniques to try to build loyalty among voters. Borrowing a tactic from other campaigns, including Obama’s, Whitman’s has taught volunteers how to use their personal computers to make calls to voters and immediately feed information about their intentions back to headquarters.
Data are compiled and used to reach specific segments of the electorate through tele-town halls, for which thousands of likely voters are patched onto a conference call with the candidate. Cable TV viewers watching a Whitman ad are encouraged to push a button on their remote controls if they want Whitman’s job creation plan mailed to their homes.
“The idea is to spend vast amounts on technology to chop up the electorate as many ways as possible so you’re hitting a Fresno woman making $40,000 to $50,000 a year who cares about education and air quality,” said Adam Mendelsohn, a Republican consultant.
The campaign has spent $4.5 million on information technology and Web development, most of which went to Tokoni, a social networking firm run by former EBay associates. Last week Whitman’s team unveiled its own iPhone application.
On a recent visit to the campaign’s Silicon Valley offices, programmers were working to add Facebook-style flair to Whitman’s website: Supporters will have a home page where they can monitor campaign activity, write articles and see which of their local civic and elected leaders have endorsed Whitman. They can also find the location of the closest field office and the phone number of the local precinct leader.
Brown’s Oakland digs are far different: On the same day that programmers financed by Whitman’s donations were working on her website, Brown was upstairs in his campaign headquarters dialing for dollars to buttress his campaign. The theme from “Star Wars” played in the background. A sign above the loft’s toilet warned to lift the handle to avoid flooding.
“She’s not getting much practice with the fiscal discipline that will be required of the next governor,” Brown said of his opponent as he sampled a batch of homemade brownies. “There is no discipline in that campaign with regard to spending.”
But Whitman’s cash is easing her way. Her campaign wrote a $230,000 check to the California Republican Party last year and contributed $4,000 to college Republican groups — two entities that have not always had good relations with candidates like her who espouse some moderate social views. After a Latino shop owner who hosted Whitman at a June campaign event suggested that she sponsor kids at a nearby soccer center, she used $1,000 in campaign cash to do just that.
The spending has vaulted Whitman from a business executive known only in financial circles into a Republican contending strongly with a Democratic veteran — a significant move, given the state’s recent leanings. It is unclear, however, whether her campaign opens a path for future Republicans.
“She spent more in the summer than the average candidate would spend in the entire general election,” Hoffenblum said.
“Only a Republican with this kind of wealth can truly be competitive in this state, even in this climate. If she wins, she proved that it worked. If she loses, you’ll be lucky to see a billionaire put in for his filing fee again.”