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Closing hours of California gubernatorial race get more intense, if that's even possible

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October 30, 2010

Jerry Brown may have pulled into a comfortable lead over Meg Whitman, but this race ain't over, yet.

By Eileen McGuire-Mahony

Nicky Diaz-Santilan, who worked as a housekeeper for Meg Whitman and lost her job when she disclosed she was in the country illegally, had a powerful impact on Whitman's aspirations when she came forward with her story. Since then, polls have progressively been going in Brown's favor.

For a wildly successful businesswoman with a billion dollar fortune and an astonishingly precise micro-targeting system, this means deploying everything in a final push to get out the votes. For his part, seeing a clear path to victory, Brown is set on his own closing game. Both candidates have come out with full-60 second spots that will air over this final weekend before Election day.[1]

The topic of both spots is the same; is Whitman fit for office? In her "I'm Ready" spot, the former eBay CEO tells voter she knows many of them see the governor's race as an unhappy choice and declares that her business strength and lack of prior political office makes her the smart choice to rehabilitate California's ailing economy.

Brown's own minute-long spot, "Echo," pairs Whitman's own comments over the course of the election cycle with comments from unpopular outgoing Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and closes with a line from a newspaper's endorsement of Brown: "We tried that. It didn't work."


Meg Whitman for Governor' 'I'm Ready' ad.

Jerry Brown for Governor' 'Echo' ad.

Interestingly, the Brown ad is far more about pairing the times when both Schwarzanegger and Whitman uttered the same go-to campaign statements, such as "It's about leadership," and described their own resumes than it is about showing that the two endorse the same policies.

The schizophrenic character of America's biggest governor's race is typified by a former governor lambasting his opponent for sticking to failed policies and a neophyte punching back with charges that the lifelong office holder has no clear plan for what to do with the office.

The "I'm Ready" ad is part of a plan to blanket the entire state with Whitman's ads, in print, online, and on the airwaves. A week of statewide television advertising alone runs about $3 million. In one week recently, from the 10th to the 17th of October, Whitman's campaign spent $4.6 million on ads, giving new meaning to saturation. Some analysts are saying her loss of traction can be chalked up to voters simply getting tired of seeing her. Whitman, however, sees it differently. People need to see me. They see me on TV. They see me on the Internet. But they haven’t seen me in real life."[2] Coming from a women with over 700 personal campaign appearances to date, that's saying something.

Whitman points to California's reputation as a blue state and her opponent's statewide name recognition as the reason for her massive push. "It’s like Meg is dueling with multiple gunmen," remarked spokesman Tucker Bounds. The candidate echoed this point; "I’m up against some pretty big entrenched interests," she said, making an indirect jab at the proliferation on labor unions who have spent big in support of Brown.

The visceral negativity of many ads has become an issue in its own right in the closing days of the campaign. At California First Lady Maria Shriver's annual Conference on Women, which drew American First Lady Michelle Obama and her predecessor, Laura Bush, both candidates were pressed on the attack ads. Today Show host Matt Lauer elicited a statement from Jerry Brown that he would suspend his negative ads if Whitman agreed to do the same. When she refused, it drew a condemnatory chorus from the mostly female audience.[3] At the Long Beach symposium, Whitman also stressed the difference between personal attack ads and negative ads focused on issues, a point that may have been lost.

Whitman's negative ads have largely focused on reminding older voters and informing younger about the least flattering points from Jerry Brown's first tenure as governor, from 1975 to 1983. Many of the attacks on Whitman have come from third party groups sympathetic to Brown, meaning Whitman's refusal to call off the attack ads could be rooted in her concern that simply getting Brown to stop attacking her wouldn't necessarily mean an end to attack ads. Whether or not she's right, the immediate perception among the audience seemed to be, well, negative. Next week's poll returns should give some idea of how much voters think attack ads can sometimes highlight important aspects of a candidate's character, judgment, or past performance.

The staggering volume of television advertising to come from the Whitman camp reaches out to California's biggest minorities. In addition to English and Spanish, she has run spots in Cantonese and Mandarin. Additionally, her volunteers are calling and contacting voters in those four languages plus Farsi, Vietnamese, and Korean.[4] This is part of a her highly specific outreach effort, one which echoes the GOP's "Voter Vault." Unveiled for the 2006 midterms, the Vault collected massive amounts of seemingly trivial and immaterial data and then analyzed it in every imaginable way to reveal voting patterns and provide tips on reaching voters. While 2006 was a bloodbath for the GOP, Voter Vault won raves from experts in the advertising and public relations industry.


Meg Whitman for Governor' 'My Community, Mandarin Version' ad.

Meg Whitman for Governor' 'My Community, Cantonese Version' ad.

Democrats, widely expected to take some big hits on Tuesday, are also agonizing over the details of voter mobilization. For a party down in many polls and worried it may not recreate the impressive surge in participation that swept Barack Obama into office two years ago, identifying ambivalent voters and getting them to polls will be key. Whitman's need to capitalize on mobilizing voters is slightly different, and stems from the specific make-up of California's electorate. Democrats have the registration advantage, so she needs to win huge swaths of independent voters. She also needs to reach sizable minority groups and sway them.

To do this, she's taking to a campaign tactic more frequently seen in small state: "Retail politicking."[5] Recently, she's popped into a grocery store in L.A.'s Koreatown and stuck around the neighborhood to pick up coffee, chatting with fellow shoppers the entire time. Such approaches have made inroads and, even if Whitman loses, there's a possible dual outcome. California's Asian population, 12.5% of the state, has leaned to the Dems in past elections. They may now become more an unknown quantity in future race and they may command more attention from candidates hoping to win their support. Brown has taken a similar approach, spending a recent weekend visiting half a dozen churches chosen to reach minority populations.[6]

Whitman last held a clear and prolonged lead for one month beginning in early August. Since mid-September, Brown has held a slight edge. By the time the Nicky Diaz story broke at the end of September, the Democrat was consistently ahead in polls, if only by a point or two. October saw Brown accelerate his lead, peaking at a 13 point edge in Real Clear Politic's average of polls on the 20th.[7] Brown currently leads by 6.7 points in RCP's study. Political forecasting blog FiveThirtyEight is even more certain of a Brown victory. Their own aggregation of polls gives Brown a 9 point lead today and gave him a huge 18 point lead on October 20th, his best day of the month. They currently give Brown a 95.8% chance of winning.[8]

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