By the end of last weekend's panel on the 2010 election, Duf Sundheim, the former chairman of the California Republican Party, came to a stark conclusion: "The Republican brand in this state is death."
Even if Republicans were enjoying successes throughout the country in November, the GOP in California suffered for reasons beyond party affiliation, others argued. Jim Brulte, former Senate and Assembly Republican leader, said it would have been “very, very difficult under all circumstances” for Whitman to win.
Brulte argued that Californians voting for governor go Democrat, and when it comes to electing a chief executive, they choose experience. With few exceptions, Californians have "... not elected a governor who has not held statewide office before being elected governor,” he said.
“That said, those folks over there won a picture perfect campaign,” Brulte said, referring to the Brown team. “Her campaign started with a disadvantage and they didn’t do everything right. The other side did just about everything right.”
Politicians, professors, and students gathered this weekend for the Governor's Race: the Inside Story – a conference organized by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies since 1990 – to talk about the successes and failures of the governor’s race.
“What we’re trying to create here is an historical record of this campaign,” moderator and Los Angeles Times journalist Mark Barabak said.
Strategists for the campaigns of Brown, Steve Poizner, Tom Campbell, and Gavin Newsom were present for that record but in the place of the Whitman campaign, there was a void.
It left the floor open for plenty of criticism, from both the Brown and Poizner side but also from the Republican leaders included in the discussion.
Brown campaign manager Steven Glazer called the campaign “fairly simple in its message” and “without a lot of “moving parts” (though some meetings did take place in long-time supporter Francis Ford Coppola’s studio).
Whitman, on the other hand, spent more than $150 million of her own money during her 18-month campaign. Glazer pointed out that she spent over $1 million on polling focus groups over the summer – more than the Brown campaign spent on overhead in its entire campaign.
But "despite all the money she was spending, there was no traction," Naylor said.
Darry Sragow, of the USC/Los Angeles Times poll, called the Whitman campaign a “textbook example of how to run a bad campaign.”
“I was going to bring a wood chipper to represent the Whitman campaign but I couldn’t find one on eBay,” said James Bognet, strategist for Poizner. “Is that taught anywhere at Cal that the way we are going to win a race is we are going to destroy you?"
Whitman’s attacks were a sign of weakness, he said. He said her attack on her Republican opponent before he had even run a personal ad was a sign that the campaign was going to be "very bloody."
But while Whitman's ads barraged television and radio outlets, she skirted the media. For example, Whitman was the only major statewide candidate in at least 15 years to decline to appear before the San Francisco Chronicle's editorial board for an interview. Republican panelists said her evasiveness worsened her character ratings.
Sundheim said that in a conjoint computer analysis, Whitman and Poizner actually came out very close on their stances on issues. That meant “… it was really going to come down to a very nasty personal fight," Sundheim said. "Meg went heavy with the money real early and tried to freeze Poizner out.”
Poizner’s harsh, conservative stance on immigration lost him a huge portion of the electorate and he lost the primary. Naylor, who was a Poizner supporter, switched over to Whitman, though before he performed what he called his "suicide mission."
"He wasn't the Poizner I endorsed," Naylor said. In the end of the governor's race, for many voters, the same was true for Whitman.
A question of tone and discipline
From the beginning, the Brown strategists were frugal with their resources, waiting until Labor Day to run their first ad, though there were four or five opportunities, Glazer said. Even then, the team debated whether to wait a few days.
When Whitman ran an ad in September featuring Clinton criticizing Brown for raising taxes in the 1992 presidential debates, strategists saw the potential damage that could ensue.
“The question was, 'do we do something in response?'” Glazer said. They chose to run the “Pinocchio” spot.
“There was a little bit of fear about ‘are we being too demeaning, are we going over he top’?” said Joe Trippi, Brown's strategist and media consultant. “We don’t ever want to go out and say your opponent’s a liar but we felt the foundation had been established.”
That reluctance to run ads continued throughout the campaign, even until late in the campaign, at the end of October, with the famous “Echo” spot. It was the segment in which Whitman echoed Schwarzenegger’s lines almost entirely word for word, and it was one that the Republican panelists agreed was extremely effective. But the Brown team held it.
“We had real discipline about the spots we wanted to get out,” Trippi said. “No matter how badly we wanted to, we waited and waited until we had gotten the case we wanted to make but we were two weeks away and we were like, ‘if we don’t put it up now it’s not going’.”
Brulte, former Senate and Assembly Republican leader, said Whitman’s aggressiveness undermined her credibility as a fresh new face. By Labor Day, Brulte joked, “Jerry Brown was the fresh new face.”
An issue of who do you trust
Trippi compared Meg Whitman to a complete stranger walking into the room and accusing someone in it of being a crook. The immediate reaction is “who are you?”
“This campaign in the end was about trust,” he said. “Who are you going to trust to fix this mess?”
Roger Salazar, a panelist representing the California Working Families independent expenditure campaign, said independent women were a worry for the strategists. Testing messages that Whitman was a bad businesswoman didn’t work. But “one thing that did work is that you couldn’t trust her,” he said.
Brown had the advantage of experience, a factor that mattered more and more as the race progressed. Brown had other advantages. One was that he lacked a primary opponent. He also entered the governor’s race late in the game – in March of last year. Another advantage was that he didn’t need a policy platform like Whitman did.
“The purpose of a detailed plan is to show that you had thought through something. I don’t think Jerry had to do that,” Naylor said.
In Whitman's campaign book, "... she laid out much more," Sundheim said. "She got constantly hammered. He had the benefit of not saying anything."
“If there ever was a status quo guy to can, this would have been the year to do it,” Trippi said. But Jerry wasn’t that status quo dealmaker or insider, he added. “Even for those that wanted an outsider, Jerry was an acceptable insider.”
The bluntness with which Brown spoke his opinion – which came into the limelight during when a voice recording brought into question whether he had called Whitman a “whore” – paled in comparison to the public scandal around Nicky Diaz Santillan, the housekeeper that Whitman employed for nine years and then laid off when she allegedly learned of her undocumented status.
The Brown campaign did a poll to track the effect of the “whore” incident, and found that it had no effect, said Brown spokesman Sterling Clifford. It meant a lot to admit mistakes, he said.
“We apologized that night for the salty language,” Clifford said. “We didn’t play a lot of games about it.”
“All she had to do is say ‘I screwed up’ once," Trippi said.
Naylor said for him "the campaign was over on June 7, with the immigration thing." He agreed with Sundheim's statement that the "Republican brand is death," and said the party needs to figure out how to draw Hispanic voters.
Is there a political future for Meg Whitman?
Naylor didn’t think so – at least not anytime soon.
“I think it would take a long time to overcome the damage that was done in this campaign,” he said.