Why Meg Whitman can't buy the election

Meg_Whitman_250x.jpgYou'd think that $160 million (and counting) would be more than enough to handle the ever-loopy Jerry Brown, who didn't really begin his campaign until after Labor Day - and who has a fraction of Whitman's war chest. But the former CEO of eBay is discovering that money does indeed have its limits, especially if you're stiff, insincere, lying, and manipulative. Whitman may still become the next governor of California, but she's losing ground in many of the polls, and I'm beginning to sense that the campaign has stalled out. Nate Silver notices some similarities between Whitman and Connecticut's Linda McMahon, the former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment who is also fading fast.

First, these candidates usually lack experience in running for political office, and therefore may have their share of awkward moments around voters, or may not know much about the day-to-day business of running a campaign. Also, these candidates will usually not have been vetted by voters, so there is more risk of there being skeletons in their closet. It might behoove candidates who are serious about making a second career out of elected office to pursue an office like state treasurer first, rather than immediately stepping into a Senate or a gubernatorial campaign.

Second, there is a fair amount of anecdotal evidence, and some empirical evidence, that there are diminishing returns on advertising spending, which is the primary way that self-funding dollars manifest themselves. Once a candidate has achieved near-universal name recognition, and has had the opportunity to advance two or three key messages that voters will carry into the polling place, additional advertising may do little good and may even annoy or confuse voters. A Quinnipiac poll last month, for instance, found while 95 percent of Connecticut residents had seen one of Ms. McMahon's ads, 56 percent found them annoying.

Whitman has been in our faces for the better part of the year, and I must say familiarity is breeding a fair bit of contempt. Her early ads that spelled out an oversimplified 1-2-3 strategy to save the state were an insult to voters, many of whom have come to recognize that California's problems have no easy answers. Then there was the bit about never voting, and the report about her shoving an eBay employee, and the housekeeper kerfuffle (less a case of what she did than how she explained it), and, just today, the less-than-flattering reports about her two sons (Gawker has the details). Now granted, these are not indictable offenses (and kids do have a way of turning into monsters, no matter what the demographic) but neither are they to be commended. And to think that several of Whitman's earlier ads pegged Brown's entire career as a failure. That's not only wrong, it's overtly cruel, even for a political campaign. Perhaps people are beginning to realize that this is not the best person to be running our troubled state for the next four years.

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Mark Lacter
Mark Lacter created the LA Biz Observed blog in 2006. He posted until the day before his death on Nov. 13, 2013.
Mark Lacter, business writer and editor was 59
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