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4 Weeks to Go: True Lies, New Poll, Burton Redux

May11

Franklin Roosevelt famously said that, “Repetition does not transform a lie into a truth.” But then, he didn’t live long enough to see California’s 2010 Republican primary for governor.

Battering each other on the airwaves with one month to go before the election, GOP wannabe govs Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner seem far more determined to prove the wisdom of the words of V.I. Lenin:  “A lie told often enough becomes the truth.”

In recent weeks Stevie Wonder has stretched the truth in attacking eMeg on issues from health care to immigration, while she has simply flat-out lied about his budget stewardship at the Department of Insurance budget and distorted his stance on Prop. 13 .

As a political matter, Michael Rothfeld rightly noted in the LAT that the large number of demonstrably untrue charges flying in the race may be traced to the fact that Poizner and Whitman are both basically moderates, furiously reinventing themselves  as hard-core conservatives  (for the record Rothfeld also reported that, “Although both campaigns exaggerate, Whitman’s ads appear to stretch the truth more”).

As a journalistic matter, what’s most intriguing about the fusillades of falsehoods is that neither candidate has suffered sanctions for her or his prevarications – a sad state of affairs just 20 years after California political writers thought they had invented a weapon to overcome such campaign conduct, and to keep the world safe for truth, justice and the American way.

It was in the 1990 Democratic primary for governor that the state’s major newspapers all began to hold campaigns accountable for assertions they made in TV ads, by running some form or other of “truth box” which fact-checked the text and images of ads, especially negative ones, against the record. (The name was always a misnomer: mainstream journalists are trained to report facts, not to determine truth, a much harder challenge.)

Hailed as a breakthrough in campaign reporting by no less a figure than the WashPost’s David Broder, then the unquestioned and widely acclaimed grand poobah of Beltway punditry, the truth box for a short time seemed to hold the promise of raising the level of political advertising; at the very least it required consultants, in those pre-internet days, to fax – fax! – to gimlet-eyed reporters hundreds of pages of supporting documentation each time they rolled out a new spot.

Today, campaigns still go through the motions of citing source material for ad claims, but the rigor of the journalistic exercise has greatly withered away, due not only to the sharp decline in influence of newspapers, but also to huge cutbacks in resources suffered throughout the industry, which have made the serious commitment of reporting hours and news hole space needed to ferret out the complexities of fact and falsity in TV spots something of an unaffordable luxury  in many newsrooms.

In the Whitman-Poizner race, the Sacbee’s substantive and sustained “Ad Watch” effort, thanks largely to the labors of Capitol bureau chief Amy Chance, has been an outlier to this trend.

In the end, whatever moral authority the journalistic truth box might have wielded was always doomed to be overwhelmed by the persuasive powers of repetition and emotional appeal inherent in television advertising. As Democratic media consultant Bill Carrick put it: “Campaigns are all repeat offenders – everybody does it all the time and nobody pays a price for it.”

How Close is that Shave?

We’re not big fans of SurveyUSA because no matter what their alleged record is, it’s a robotic call system with some serious methodological drawbacks that some of the most prestigious pollsters in the country find unacceptable.

But a lot of TV stations use these guys because they’re relatively cheap (and their final results seem magically to come close to the outcome), so their data gets into the political bloodstream. Thus is the latest poll of 548 likely Republican primary voters that shows Meg Whitman ahead of Steve Poizner by just 2 percentage points – 39-37% — with a margin of error of +/- 4.3%.

The poll – commissioned by KABC-TV Los Angeles, KPIX-TV San Francisco, KGTV-TV San Diego and KFSN-TV Fresno – had the race at 22 points just 18 days ago, with Whitman leading 49-27%. Do we think there was a 20-point swing in 18 days? Or do we think the poll is a bit wild? Right.

What we do think is that the trend is what matters. All the polling we’ve seen and heard about shows that the GOP governor’s race has tightened. And if the SurveyUSA crosstabs are to be believed, Poizner has picked up among downscale Palinista Republicans: he leads 42-25% in the Central Valley; 34-32% among voters with incomes under $50,000; he’s got the conservatives 41-38% and the men 41-37%. These are the folks we talked about Monday who just might be affected by Whitman’s connections to Goldman Sachs.

From The Department of Corrections

In our Saturday post about the California Democratic Party’s ad attacking Meg Whitman but masquerading as an “issues ad,” we described the abrupt ending to our conversation with CDP Chairman John Burton. Through his spokesman, Burton on Monday complained that he had been misquoted. Burton says he didn’t say “Fuck you.” His actual words were, “Go fuck yourself.”  Calbuzz regrets the error.


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There are 5 comments for this post

  1. avatar tonyseton says:

    The radio spots being paid for by PG&E are as cravenly dishonest in tone and implication as anything the candidates have put out. Their lies are no pernicious that their producers should face criminal charges.

  2. avatar JOAQUIN says:

    Ya’ Gotta’-Love John Burton regardless of his party affiliation, for setting the record straight.
    His “Honesty” cannot be compromised!

  3. avatar Adelaides Lament says:

    Can hardly see to type…coffee all over my screen. Best “correction” evah!

  4. avatar BurningPier says:

    Classic Burton. As a legislative staffer, I remember going to an event where the Sierra Club was honoring Burton with their “Grizzly Award.” In his thank you speech before a crowded room of enviros, legislators, and staffers, rather than extolling environmental virtues or noting key environmental legislation of the moment, Burton told a joke involving a grizzly bear, a hunter, and, uh, some sort of fornication…

  5. avatar Ave7 says:

    The ScurveyUSA polls are, as you point out, notoriously inaccurate. But there is no doubt that Meg has peaked and is now fading.

    Meg-lomaniac spent too much, too soon, and her own ads combined with the attacks on her, are all blending into a bizarre bowl of foul-tasting gruel that TV watchers are being force-fed to the point of nausea. The only weapon she possesses — TV commercials — is the overused weapon that has landed her in this spiral.

    Add to this the one-two punch of Goldman and immigration, and you have a recipe for the largest upset since…well…since the last time the political consultants took a rich, naive, egomaniac to the cleaners. Poizner still has a lot of room to grow with inland voters, conservatives and older Republicans.

    Interesting footnote on immigration: Whitman undoubtedly thought her answer to the Arizona law question would either cost her the primary or cost her the general. She chose to protect her chances with Latinos this fall by betting she could outlast Poizner’s spring surge. We’ll see…

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