How Poizner Could Still Win; Memo to Joe Mathews

Mar19

Over coffee and muffins last Saturday morning, Stuart Stevens, Steve Poizner’s media strategist, predicted to a handful of California political reporters that this week’s Field Poll would show his guy further behind Meg Whitman than ever.

And, Stevens quickly added to the incredulity of the journalists, it would prove ultimately and totally irrelevant, after Poizner confounds conventional wisdom and defeats eMeg in the June 8 Republican primary for governor.

“Once Steve Poizner goes on the air,” the lean and laconic Washington-based consultant said, “the entire issue is going to be:  how does she reduce her rate of loss?”

With eMeg now smashing Poizner 63-to-14, according to the Field survey released Wednesday, Stevens’s two-part prediction has proven to be at least half right. What remains to be seen is whether the claim that his client is poised to pull off one of the biggest upsets in California political history turns out to be more than spin and smoke-blowing.

The basic assumption underlying Team Poizner’s stated confidence aligns with the Calbuzz argument that 2010 is – first, last and only – a change election. With this as a point of departure, their insistence that The Commish has eMeg right where he wants her proceeds on three key arguments:

1-Whitman’s massive, early TV buy is Christmas advertising in August.

Poizner strategists believe that Whitman’s huge current lead is extremely soft, built on name identification that she has built over several months of being the only candidate on the air.

But, they argue, she has peaked too soon and once Republican primary voters learn more about her – with a major assist from Poizner comparative ads – that support will quickly erode and all the movement and momentum will be on their side. “Campaigns have internal rhythms that are unalterable,” said Stevens. “You don’t have to win many days to win an election.”

2-Poizner, not Whitman, has the right message.

With his emphasis on sweeping tax cuts, a hard line on illegal immigration and expressed opposition to public financing of abortion, Poizner has not only staked out the ideological conservative ground in the Republican primary, his handlers argue, but also positioned himself as the candidate who most dramatically represents change.

Stevens argued that while  Whitman’s message has been largely biographical – she is the former, successful head of eBay who will bring her business skills to bear in Sacramento – and aimed at establishing her as a political outsider, she has not advanced the argument to define herself as an agent of change.  “We like the idea that Meg has become the effective incumbent in this race,” said Stevens, “and the campaign will become a referendum on the incumbent.” (NB: this conversation took place before this week’s release of eMeg’s 48-page plan of policy proposals).

3-Poizner has the resources to deliver his message.

While Team Whitman has adapted the military doctrine of overwhelming force to surge to an unprecedented early lead – creating the unlikely perception that Poizner is the poor guy in the race who needs to put on bake sales to fund his campaign – he has at least $19 million available for TV advertising, an amount that would seem extraordinary in any other year.

To the Poizner camp, the fact that Whitman has spent a considerable amount of money attacking him is evidence of a lack of confidence among eMeg’s strategists that she has the election in the bag. And they scoff at the argument, made repeatedly during last weekend’s GOP convention, that the party should unite behind her because, as Mitt Romney put it, she “is the only Republican who can be elected governor of California.”

“As Jack Germond used to say,” Stevens told reporters over breakfast last weekend, “’Those who depend on winnability seldom do.’”

Say it ain’t so, Joe: Joe Mathews’s take on California politics and government is usually smart and well-reasoned, but the argument underpinning his recent ad hominem attack on Calbuzz over at Fox and Hounds is all but incoherent.

Mathews bashes us for leading the months-long charge that resulted in Whitman finally becoming accessible to the press corps, on the grounds that what she said when she finally spoke to reporters wasn’t very interesting.

Here’s a hint about covering politics from a couple of “aging” reporters, Joe: What politicians say matters.

Whether it’s mush or the sharpest and most specific policy prescriptions, the words and arguments they use in campaigns are important signifiers of how they’ll govern, and part of the job of being a political reporter is to present those words and arguments to voters so they can make the decision.

Here’s another hint: Put aside your oh-so-world-weary condescension to those voters, get up off your ass and do some actual reporting instead of just sucking on your thumb all the time.


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There are 6 comments for this post

  1. avatar Cicero says:

    There is at least one fatal flaw in Team Poizner’s strategy, which is that he’s shown nothing to distinguish himself from Whitman to Republican primary voters. His effort to paint himself as the true conservative is unpersuasive, both because it’s unconvincing because his dramatic shift to starboard of the deck chairs on the SS Commish is so recent, and I’m betting that voters place more importance on consistency over the specifics of any particular policy positions. It goes wihout saying that he isn’t going to win many people over through the force of his personality.

    True, Team Poizner’s “Rope-Dope” strategy did work for Muhammed Ali in the Rumble in the Jungle. But it still seems to fly in the face of common sense. If Pepsi launches a new ad campaign, do you think they are likely to have more success with people who express no preference for Coke over Pepsi, or with people who say they prefer Coke?

  2. avatar Ave7 says:

    The two words Poizner’s people are dying to use to describe Whitman are “Al Checchi.” But of course they can’t because that makes them Gray Davis. But there really is a parallel, and it is possible that Whitman is tracking the “Checchi Trajectory” into a primary loss.

    • avatar Andy says:

      But would Al have lost to Poizner at this point? I’m not so sure…

    • avatar pjhackenflack says:

      Yeah, except It was a three-way in the 1998 Democratic primary: Checchi and Harman fought an air war that allowed Davis to sneak through the gap. The dynamics are altogether different in the 2010 Republican primary for Whitman and Poizner.

    • avatar Ave7 says:

      Different dynamics to be sure — there isn’t a third candidate standing around waiting to crawl atop the pile of radioactive rubble (no murder-suicide like Checchi-Harmon).

      But the other interesting dynamic of Checchi, and some other mega-spenders, is the ballistic trajectory: They go up early with a major ad budget, their poll numbers climb, then the ad fatigue sets in, people start getting tired of the seeing the self-anointed “CEO success story” every 12 minutes during prime time, then someone new (Poizner?) starts negative ads that give voters a reason to tap into their building resentment. Bye bye big bucks, hello flavor of the month.

      Davis’ win had as much to do with timing as it did with Checchi/Harmon.

      I’m not predicting a Poizner win by any means, I’m just saying his argument that the fat lady ain’t singing carries some weight.

  3. avatar patwater says:

    Re: http://foxandhoundsdaily.com/blog/joe-mathews/6637-calbuzz-is-right-about-me and above

    You know I think we can all agree that what California definitely needs is more of this self-referencial metapolitical discourse. Screw talking about events or issues! Let’s parse what constitutes real reporting a bit more…

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