Saturday, March 27, 2010




There is an unprecedented reality in this year’s campaign for governor: One candidate is willing and able to spend virtually unlimited personal money to get the office.

And so Republican Meg Whitman, who promises to spend as much as $150 million to get elected, renders all manner of longstanding political truisms invalid. Some of them: 1) Putting large amounts of political advertising on radio and television many months before an election is a waste of money. 2) It’s almost impossible to get elected governor if you’ve never before run for statewide office, unless you’re a movie star a la Ronald Reagan or Arnold Schwarzenegger. 3) If you haven’t voted consistently, people won’t vote for you. This spring, these are wrong, wrong and wrong.

In short,almost all the unwritten rules that usually govern California politics are suspended for this campaign. That’s because Whitman’s free spending (she’s put $40 million into her effort so far) has bought name recognition of the sort that usually accrues only to national celebrities or longtime politicians.

It has given her a huge poll lead over her Republican rival Steve Poizner, a fellow Silicon Valley zillionaire who has done a credible job in more than three years as state insurance commissioner. It has pulled her even with or slightly ahead of presumed Democratic nominee Jerry Brown, ex-governor, son of a governor and current state attorney general.

“You get some results when you advertise prolifically and no one else is on the air,” Brown allowed last month, predicting Whitman might take a bit of a lead over him before he gets an active campaign going.

The questions: Will it be too late for Brown if he doesn’t soon spend some of the $10 million or so he’s gathered? Is it already too late for Poizner, who keeps sliding in the polls as he insists he has not yet begun to fight?

Poizner claims Whitman’s almost unprecedented (for a seriously contested primary election) poll lead of almost 50 points does not mean she has accomplished anything much, saying again and again that her support may be wide, but it’s not deeply committed.

But a broad body of psychological research going back to World War II indicates that the more often people hear positive messages about a person they have begun to like, the more solid that feeling becomes. One thing for sure: There is no letup in sight for Whitman’s positive commercials about herself.

Which means that the longer Poizner waits before putting on his own blitz of attack ads to counteract Whitman’s negative commercials about him, the more of a longshot he becomes. His thus far desultory efforts at responding have accomplished little.

Of course, Poizner claims Whitman’s ads and current poll numbers are about as meaningful as advertising for Christmas sales in August. Time will tell if he’s right.

As for Brown, he can look to his own past for an example of effective early advertising. When Brown ran for his second term as governor in 1978, Republican opponent Evelle Younger, then a popular attorney general and former district attorney of Los Angeles County, emerged from the primary with a slight lead.

But Younger went on vacation for almost a month after that June vote, figuring no one would be paying attention to politics until summer’s end. Brown, meanwhile, launched a major ad campaign the day after the primary – and took a big lead that was never threatened.

In that campaign, of course, Brown did not face a self-funded candidate willing to spend stupendous sums of personal cash. This time, Brown figures to raise about $30 million, besides whatever labor unions and other supposedly independent committees spend to promote him. The more he uses now, the less he’ll have later. So he waits.

A similar strategy put Younger on the political sidelines for the rest of his life.

The message to Brown from both the past and the polls, therefore, is that he’d better not wait even until June. If he does, he risks falling far behind. His strategy of doing little in the early going worked well in this primary season, as potential rivals like Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom fell away, but Whitman won’t just evaporate like they did. Nor would Poizner, if he pulls the comeback of a lifetime and overtakes Whitman.

So Brown faces a quandary: While Poizner and Whitman can give as much as they like to their campaigns, Brown donors can give no more than about $25,000 each in the primary and a similar amount in the fall season. Chump change for either Republican.

Nevertheless, Brown must do something. Simply sitting for interviews with seemingly every television station and newspaper that will send a reporter – as he did just after formally declaring for office – has proven insufficient so far.

Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

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