07/07/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Meg Whitman's Titanic Campaign for Governor of California

What has a record $70 million in primary spending gotten billionaire Meg Whitman? A plummeting Republican primary lead over state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, not long ago dismissed as a hapless figure by the state's diminished press corps. And a lot more trouble besides.

Today the Democratic Party and Jerry Brown, the de facto nominee, are intervening with a tough new TV ad against Whitman, hitting her on ethics and Goldman Sachs.

It's been a wild slide of a ride for the "inevitable" Meg Whitman these past few weeks.

Jack, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, excited as the leviathan ship he is traveling on slices through the Atlantic waters at an astounding 21 knots, famously proclaims: "I'm the king of the world!" in James Cameron's Titanic.

Three weeks ago, I revealed on my blog, New West Notes, that private polling showed her once 50-point primary lead over Poizner had been cut in half. A week ago, I revealed that Poizner was going up on the air with a rugged TV ad attacking Whitman, a controversial former Goldman Sachs board member, for her deep linkages to the investment banking house. On Tuesday, I revealed that private polling showed Whitman's lead cut further, to 10 points or less. All these things came as shocks to most.

Kudos, incidentally, to Poizner, who made his fortune as a Silicon Valley inventor and entrepreneur, and his gritty team. Poizner, campaign manager Jim Bognet, media consultant Stuart Stevens, pollster Neil Newhouse, communications director Jarrod Agen, press secretary Bettina Inclan, campaign chairman Jim Brulte, and more all insisted that the election really was not in December, January, or February, when they were absolutely written out of this race, but in June. And so it is.

Now, thanks to a strong plan and very good execution, including some recent powerful TV advertising, the Poizner crew is in striking position of a seemingly most unlikely victory.

What are the factors to consider in this race?

This hard-hitting Poizner ad against former Goldman Sachs board member Meg Whitman is now airing throughout California.

** The Alienation Factor. This isn't exactly a happy happy time in politics. But even in happier times, resentment and anger figure prominently in voter choices.

My old friend Pat Caddell, the former pollster who at his best was the most brilliant American political strategist I've encountered, came up decades ago with what he called "the alienation factor" in a political race. Find something in the political environment that's important, and not necessarily obvious, then proceed to rub that wound raw, tapping into the underlying resentment and anger of the electorate, channeling it against the opponent and for one's candidate.

Meg Whitman offered Steve Poizner this opportunity herself when she made her first appearance in one of her endless string of radio commercials last December. In her little 60-second talk, she assailed California's welfare caseload, but did not mention that a fair amount of it was driven by illegal immigrants, especially illegal immigrant children. Why not? Because she intended to try to appeal to Latino voters in a general election against Jerry Brown, notwithstanding the fact that she didn't hire Latino executives at eBay.

It was a huge contradiction and the Poizner campaign decided to make illegal immigration a leading edge issue. Poizner came out with a tough stance against illegal immigration himself, and pointed out that Whitman was for what is called in Republican circles "amnesty." That's what others call comprehensive immigration reform, the approach in the late McCain/Kennedy bill (which John McCain no longer supports) allowing immigrants here illegally to straighten out their immigration status. Under assault, Whitman backed off her position.

But the damage was done, and continues to be done. The controversial Arizona law allowing racial profiling was passed (ironically backed by McCain). When it was altered to change its most obviously egregious provisions, Poizner endorsed it. Whitman still hasn't. Over 80% of Republican voters support it.

This ad for Steve Poizner, featuring conservative icon Tom McClintock lauding him and blasting Meg Whitman as the next coming of Arnold Schwarzenegger, has been very effective.

** The Ideology Factor. Illegal immigration was the leading edge issue which got Poizner rolling in the primary. But it's hardly the only one. Once a relatively moderate Republican legislative candidate (in a Democratic district), Poizner used to be aligned with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. But in the past few years, Poizner has moved further right. In this race, he is running as a staunch conservative, winning the backing of California's archconservative icon, Congressman Tom McClintock. He's proving to be a very effective validator for Poizner in TV and radio ads.

Poizner's taken more conservative positions across the board. So has Whitman, for that matter, but her positioning is not quite as conservative. And she is running as a big business conservative to Poizner's populist conservative.

They both want to cut taxes, a problematic notion for a state government with a chronic budget crisis. Poizner, however, wants to cut them across the board. Whitman wants to cut them for wealthy investors and corporations. (Whitman's elimination of the capital gains tax would absolutely devastate the state budget, while greatly rewarding people like herself and her super-rich friends.)

Poizner emphasizes his conservative stance in his advertising and public appearances. Whitman spent multi-millions running as a self-described great corporate executive with billowy ideas.

** The Legitimacy Factor. Both candidates have problems with legitimacy. Poizner used to be a moderate Republican. Whitman was basically a cipher, hardly ever bothering even to vote, and never doing so much as write an op-ed piece expressing her concern about California before deciding to start at the top by running the state. (Well, actually it was Whitman's business mentor, Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney, who talked her into running.)

Poizner at least was a Republican when he ran as a moderate in 2004 for a heavily Democratic legislative district in the San Francisco Bay Area. Whitman wasn't registered to vote and campaigned that year for Senator Barbara Boxer, the Republicans' bete noir. Why? Because Boxer was against taxing Internet sales, and that was big for the financial bottom line of Whitman and eBay.

Both Poizner and Whitman will bash each other as illegitimate figures as they battle down the stretch.

This web video attacking billionaire Meg Whitman, current frontrunner for the Republican nomination for governor of California, for her longstanding role with Goldman Sachs was merely the appetizer for a new 30-second TV attack ad that began airing around the state last weekend.

** The GoldMeg Sachs Factor. As I've said many times, and laid out here a few days ago, this is the deep linkage that will never be spun away.

Whitman had an inside dealing tenure on the Goldman Sachs board, which came to an abrupt end after federal regulators and eBay shareholders sued, backed the Goldman Sachs bailout, and prospered from investments in vulture funds (that's what they're called) to profit from the havoc caused by the near meltdown of the global financial system.

In a TV ad which I first revealed on my blog a week ago, Poizner does a very effective takedown of all this.

** The "Moderate" Tom Campbell Factor. Now we see why Whitman's camp was so eager to help convince ex-Silicon Valley Congressman Tom Campbell to drop out of the governor's race and make a third try at the U.S. Senate, as I reported here on the Huffington Post. If Campbell was still in the race, Poizner would have the lead already.

Whitman is hanging on to a primary lead with support from relatively moderate Republicans who otherwise would be for Campbell.

And how's Campbell doing running for senator? Well, he got a big burst of support when he switched in January, picking up uber-Whitman backer George Shultz, the former U.S. secretary of state and secretary of the treasury, as his campaign chairman. He also had a burst of fundraising success (one of Whitman's top fundraisers went to work for Campbell). Since then, though, his fundraising has tailed off and he's clinging to a lead over better-funded ex-Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, who's picked up big new backing in recent days.

In her latest TV ad, Whitman claims that she is the only fiscal conservative running for governor.

** The Overexposure Factor. In 1998, a near billionaire named Al Checchi ran for the Democratic nomination for governor of California. His TV ads pelted television sets across the state like so many raindrops on car windshields. Several months before the primary, I watched over an hour of his ads and interviews on a reel. By the time I was through, I was very tired of him. He was highly intelligent, but did not wear well. He didn't intrigue, didn't engage. Had he not been extraordinarily rich, few would have encouraged him to start out in politics by running for governor.

Yet, because of his massive wealth, and his willingness to spend it freely, many in the press and politics believed he was an unstoppable juggernaut. In the end, he and another super-rich candidate, Congresswoman Jane Harman -- who, ironically, was also anointed as a can't miss candidate as Checchi began to fade -- were crushed in the primary by Governor-to-be Gray Davis. Who had been Jerry Brown's very effective chief of staff.

I began scouting Whitman over two years ago, when she suddenly emerged from a lifetime of political inactivity into a role as national co-chair of the McCain/Palin campaign. I've studied hours of video footage of her. She doesn't wear very well.

As someone who writes extensively about Mad Men and has dabbled in the field, advertising fascinates me. It's a great prism on the culture.

Veteran Democratic media consultant David Doak, who has worked with dozens of big-name Democratic politicians, told me recently that he thinks that the political side of the advertising business, as distinguished from the commercial side, is not good at presenting long, unremitting TV advertising campaigns.

Political campaigns don't have the resources that corporate campaigns do, so political admakers don't develop the skillsets needed to sustain unending TV advertising. Political ads focus on a few short bursts of messaging.

Meg Whitman has been on the air for a very long time. If she survives this primary, she will be on the air seemingly forever. But the positive story that she and her advisors developed is exhausted and she is becoming a tiring presence.

Whitman, who once described herself as a "victim" with regard to the controversy that led to her leaving the Goldman Sachs board, tried to defend her activities to KCAL-TV in Los Angeles.

** The What Now Factor. To be sure, Poizner does not have this great upset in the bag. Not at all. The trendlines are in his direction. But trends are not final results. He has to avoid making a big mistake with the spotlight suddenly shining in his direction. With a month to go, he has to know when to refresh the highly effective TV ads he now has running, and how to refresh them.

Yet the Poizner message is much more clearcut than Whitman's, and more effective for a Republican primary. Whitman's massive spending may be turning off voters in the long run, and quite a few in the shorter run, but it is also the only thing holding up her candidacy.

Without the megabucks, Whitman would be dead in the water. With it, she has opportunity.

But what to do?

A Whitman insider just bemoaned the fact that they've already done so many things, yet she is flailing against an opponent almost all the experts had long since written off.

They've run more negative ads than Poizner. In fact, Whitman launched a negative TV ad campaign against Poizner before he aired his first TV ad, back when she was 40 to 50 points ahead of him.

They've run gauzy ads about her purported greatness as a corporate executive, trying to "brand" her by appropriating the eBay brand.

They've run ads about her as a sensible, hardheaded leader on public policy issues. (Never mind that her numbers don't add up, at all.)

They've presented her as the fiscal conservative in the race.

They've rolled out the most recent Republican governor before Schwarzenegger, Pete Wilson, as her campaign chairman.

She's campaigned with famous national Republicans like John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Jeb Bush.

Still, she's engaged in this dizzying downward slide in the polls.

What does she do now?