February 22, 2010

When “Level the Playing Field 2010” – the Democratic, pro-Jerry Brown independent campaign committee – launched their first ads against Meg Whitman, the Armies of eMeg immediately accused the group of meddling in the Republican primary race for governor in a bid to help Steve Poizner.

Team Whitman pointed as precedent to the ad campaign run by the Gray Davis’s consultants against former L.A. Mayor Dick Riordan starting in January 2002. That attack helped cause Riordan’s support to collapse in the GOP primary, leaving Davis facing a weaker general election candidate in conservative businessman Bill Simon.

The argument now, from communications director Tucker Bounds and others in eMeg’s camp, is that the Brown-for-governor Democrats would rather face Poizner in November, so are trying to knock eMeg out, as Davis did to Riordan.

“Clearly, Team Brown not only prefers to run against Steve Poizner in the general election, but is taking steps to achieve that with a radio buy targeting Republican primary voters,” Bounds said in an email to reporters.

But the argument is bogus, based on a false premise that has become false conventional wisdom: that Davis strategists Garry South, David Doak and Paul Maslin set out in 2002 to take Riordan out of the GOP primary. That’s not what they aimed to do. And it’s not what the “Level the Playing Field” guys are trying to do today

The goal of the anti-Meg campaign (as it was for Davis’s people in 2002) is to increase negative perceptions – especially among conservative Democrats and moderate independents – toward the candidate they expect to face in the fall. In this case: Meg Whitman. It has nothing to do with Poizner, really. If they help him, so much the better, from their point of view. But that’s not the design.

In the December 2001 Field Poll, Gov. Gray Davis’s favorability was 42% positive and 47% negative. Riordan’s was 39% positive and just 24% negative. Worse for Davis, Riordan’s favorability was 32-31% among Democrats and 34-18% among independents. Riordan was so far ahead in the primary that South and the others had no doubt they’d be facing Riordan in the general election. They had to begin cutting Democrats and independents away from Riordan’s base.

Which is why they attacked him from the LEFT, with devastating ads showing Riordan himself calling abortion “murder” and pointing out that while he was calling himself pro-choice, he’d given serious money to anti-abortion causes.

Unlike the “Level the Playing Field” forces, however, who have launched with a puny little radio buy, Davis unloaded on Riordan with $9 million on TV in five weeks. Actually, they were about to take down the ads when Maslin found that the ads – originally designed to hurt Riordan with Democrats and independents – were also hurting him with Republicans, who began to see him as a weasel. So they kept the ads up and Riordas’s GOP support cratered.

Today, Meg Whitman’s overall favorability is 25% positive and 20% negative in the January Field Poll. It’s 34-8% among Republicans and only 16-31% among Democrats. But it’s 27-13% among independents – about 2-1 positive – and that’s what the pro-Brown forces now want to alter.

The initial strike against Meg – in their opening 30-second spot that was designed mostly to grab some media attention – charged Whitman has “taken the side of the corporate special interests who want to roll back California’s bi-partisan law fighting global warming.”

And the Level 2010 web site includes a link to a Calbuzz analysis explaining why Whitman injected the environment as an issue in the governor’s race and how she had made a strategic mistake by assailing AB 32, California’s pioneering greenhouse gas reduction law.

In short, the opening shot at eMeg was, as with Davis and Riordan, from the left. And the ensuing 60-second spot – with its argument that she won’t debate, won’t release her tax returns and won’t explain her income and bonuses at eBay, plus the charge that she billed shareholders for use of her corporate jet – seems more aimed at independents than it does Republicans.

Kyle Roberts of Smart Media Group, eMeg’s media consultants, argued in a campaign memo that the initial radio buy was aimed at Republican listeners in Fresno, Sacramento and San Francisco in a campaign “designed to target and persuade Republicans during their primary election.”

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