Mervin Field is the pioneering founder of the Field Poll, an independent, nonpartisan, public opinion survey that has tracked every state election in California since 1948. The man insiders call “The Swami” kindly took time to answer some Calbuzz questions.
Calbuzz: What do you make of Jerry Brown’s effort to become the first guy to be elected governor again, when he’s twice as old as the first time he won?
Merv Field: Jerry Brown is reasonably well positioned to be elected governor in 2010. If Dianne Feinstein does not run, then Brown and Antonio Villaraigosa move up in position. I think then that the chances for either winning the nomination is 50-50. Newsom’s odds improve but are still relatively long.
Brown wears his age well. As a campaigner he doesn’t look much different than when he first ran for office in 1968. He certainly will not appear to be an old codger trying to win back his old job. The negatives he acquired as governor (1975-1982) will be issues in the campaign among old-timers and perhaps some of the newer voters. However, I can see him campaigning this way:
“I was first elected governor when I was 36. I accomplished a lot of things (also admitting to some failures). I have learned a lot since then — being a mayor, AG, etc. I have witnessed all the changes, been active in dealing with them and am now uniquely equipped to deal with the huge problems facing the state.”
CB: What’s with the Curse of Sunny Jim Rolph? Why do mayors have such a hard time getting elected governor, and what does it portend for Gavin Newsom and Villaraigosa?
MF: There were different conditions in each of the unsuccessful gubernatorial candidacies in California of former mayors of big cities, along with some similarities. Their tenures as mayors split their constituencies. Dealing with local problems gets more attention locally, where failures are well reported, then resurrected when running for governor. Local problems have inordinate effects on voters. Mayors, not governors, deal with potholes.
Also, as far as S.F. and L.A. are concerned, voters in either place don’t identify with the other. There has been and still exists a somewhat ill-defined rivalry — if not animosity — between residents of the two cities. Plus, there’s animosity between residents of the big cities and adjacent cities and suburbs. Both Villaraigosa and Newsom will face this problem.
CB: With their huge personal wealth, do Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner have an overwhelming advantage in the governor’s race?
MF: Money will help in getting attention, but it is problematic whether the reaction of the voters will be positive. Wealthy candidates without accomplishments in government feed the desire of voters to know more about them. They also invite a lot of scrutiny from the press digging into their lives. The negative media play about wealthy, new-to-the-public candidates, from former business associates, ex-spouses, school friends, etc. has a great and lasting effect on voter opinions during a relatively short campaign.
Whitman presumably has to run on the basis of being a successful business person (or personality) ready to straighten out the mess in Sacramento. But I don’t think that message will have as much resonance as it did in 2003 when Arnold used it successfully. And like Al Checchi and Bill Simon earlier — it may also have some repellent aspects in 2010.
I don’t know about Poizner. He just got elected Insurance Commissioner in 2006, so he has not yet made a mark in public office. By next year, he probably still will be viewed essentially as a successful high-tech entrepreneur. If the GOP continues to be fractured, that’s not going to help. If the primary consists of expensive personal attack ads then the winner’s chances in November are diminished.
Any credibility that successful business people might have had as competent leaders has been collapsed with the news about Detroit automakers, AIG, Lehman Brothers, Wall Street, banks, etc.
CB: Tom Campbell is arguably the most qualified Republican who’s not bloody likely to win his party’s nomination for governor. Do you see anything on the political horizon that will enable moderate Republicans to become competitive again?
MF: I don’t see a moderate like Campbell getting the GOP nomination. It’s going to take a long time before moderate Republicans can be competitive again in California. The proportion of Republican voters has been steadily declining statewide for some time, and the public has become less inclined to react positively to messages of the national and state GOP parties. Republicans can still elect office holders in gerrymandered districts but not regularly beyond that.
The chances of moderate Republicans becoming more potent may occur if the promised reapportionment reform comes into being. The proving ground for moderate GOP candidates aiming for higher office will become more fruitful if they can start and get elected in legislative districts that are more evenly balanced.
CB: Imagine the unthinkable: that Calbuzz got it wrong and Dianne Feinstein does run for governor. Do you think she would be as formidable as the polls make her out, or would the liberal netroots questions about her husband’s finances and her long absence from state politics combine to make her campaign strongest on the day she declared?
MF: If Feinstein runs she would face the problems you list. I agree with your inference that she would be at the peak of her popularity when she announces her candidacy. But if she announces before the other Democrats get too far in their campaigns I think she would still win the nomination. If she doesn’t have to face an inordinately scathing primary, she would be quite formidable against either Whitman or Poizner, with the odds in her favor.
If Feinstein really has her heart in running and being elected governor, her life-long desire, she would have to be considered the favorite in winning the Democratic nomination. However, I am beginning to be one of those political bystanders who believes that she won’t run. She’ll be 77 in 2010. Based on my perception of how voters perceive the strengths and weaknesses of a candidate, that age would be a handicap for a man running for high office and a larger handicap for a woman.