Meg Whitman                    Steve Poizner

Whitman and Poizner are spending vast sums buying up airtime around the state, but it’s unclear whether the strategy is winning new votes or turning voters off.

By Seema Mehta, Los Angeles Times

May 31, 2010

With election day little more than a week away, the two major Republican gubernatorial candidates are blanketing the airwaves with television advertising, each slashing the other as too liberal in an appeal to the party’s conservative primary voters.

Television has always been the path to voters in California, but the twist this year is the ads’ wall-to-wall frequency, a clear demonstration of the vast personal wealth that the candidates have been tapping into as they seek to become the state’s next Republican nominee for governor.

“It’s crazy out there,” said Sheri Sadler, a Democratic political media buyer, who said lower-tier candidates are having difficulty finding airtime to purchase. Television stations are turning away their regular clients because of the amount of money that Steve Poizner and Meg Whitman are pouring into television, she said.

“They are literally buying anything they can get their hands on, every spot that’s available to them, everything that opens up,” Sadler said, and Whitman and Poizner’s camps haven’t stopped even now: “They’re calling every single day.”

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Whitman has spent $47 million on television and radio ads, while Poizner has spent nearly $18 million in his ad campaign, which began months after Whitman’s. Californians have been unable to avoid the deluge — according to a new Los Angeles Times/USC poll, 77% of voters surveyed from May 19 to 26 had seen a political advertisement recently. Of those voters, 80% had seen a Whitman ad and 71% had viewed a Poizner ad.

Based on current spending patterns, Sadler said the average Los Angeles resident can expect to see about 20 Whitman ads this week, and 15 Poizner ads. Whitman is advertising statewide; Poizner is on the air everywhere but the San Francisco area, where he pulled his ads last week.

Their ad selection shows the state of the race.

Whitman is the comfortable front-runner, seeking to fend off any late Poizner surges and hold on to her double-digit lead. So the three ads she is running demonstrate a multi-pronged strategy — they include a positive message about her leadership skills, attacks on Poizner’s past liberal credentials, such as his opposing the Bush-era tax cuts and winning a 100% approval rating from Planned Parenthood in an Assembly race, and a defense against Poizner’s assertion that she favors amnesty for illegal immigrants.

“Our focus going forward is pretty basic: keep punching Meg’s positive message out, keep holding Steve Poizner accountable for his liberal record and political chicanery, and make sure our organization … delivers the vote,” said Mike Murphy, Whitman’s chief strategist.

Poizner, meanwhile, is trying to whip up undecided voters and peel away Whitman supporters. To do so he is running three ads that criticize Whitman for opposing the new Arizona crackdown on illegal immigration, likening her position to those of President Obama and Mexican President Felipe Calderon.

He gained some traction in recent weeks when he began using the issue to contrast his candidacy from Whitman’s. UC San Diego political science professor Gary Jacobson described this strategy as a “Hail Mary” attempt to overcome his still overwhelming gap in the polls.

“He’s behind, and his pollsters and focus groups probably told him this is his best bet,” Jacobson said. “He’s throwing it all into there, on the assumption that Republican primary voters are strongly anti-illegal immigration. This is a big deal for them.”

But the strategy has yet to permanently alter the race, and the Los Angeles Times/USC poll suggested it has limitations. Although 77% of Republican voters support the Arizona law, most voters indicated they were unlikely to select their candidate based solely on the issue.

The poll also suggested that voters have yet to be persuaded by Poizner’s campaign to vote for him as opposed to against Whitman. Poizner’s campaign has been saying for more than a week that it would begin running a positive ad, but none has appeared.

The candidate has been forced to run anti-Whitman ads because Whitman spent millions slinging mud at Poizner on television before he was even on the air, said Jarrod Agen, Poizner’s spokesman.

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