It Wasn’t the Economy, Stupid, It Was Character


In their last pre-election survey, Oct. 10-17, the Public Policy Institute of California found that six in 10 likely voters said jobs and the economy represented the most important issue facing California and that by a margin of 47-39%, Meg Whitman would do a better job on this pressing concern.

Moreover, while the survey showed Brown leading Whitman 44-36%, it oddly found “independents” – that is, respondents identified as likely voters who said they were registered as independents — divided 36-37% for Whitman.

But in PPIC’s post-election survey taken Nov. 3-14 and released Wednesday night, Brown won the “independents” 56-38% — a staggering shift of 19 points in Brown’s favor. In addition, according to PPIC, Latinos who favored Brown 51-22% in October ended up voting for Brown over Whitman by 75-22% — a 24 point move to Brown.

By comparison, the Field Poll’s last survey (based on actual registered voters surveyed Oct. 14-26) had Brown winning independents 49-33% and the L.A. Times/USC survey from Oct. 13-20 (also based on registered voters) had independents for Brown 55-26%.

Field had Latinos favoring Brown 57-27% before the election and the LAT/USC survey had Latinos backing Brown 59-23%.

Before trying to make sense of these numbers, consider a few findings from the LA Times/USC survey also taken Nov. 3-14 among actual registered voters:

1) Among those who said they think of themselves as independents instead of Democrats or Republicans (not the same as PPIC’s question which asks respondents how they are registered), just one third of those who said they’re independents were actually registered as Decline-to-State voters.

2) Among Latino voters, Whitman’s unfavorable rating was 71% compared to 17% favorable. Among registered DTS voters, it was 65% unfavorable and 22% favorable.

3) Latinos favored Brown over Whitman 80-15% (compared to the National Election Pool exit poll that said Latinos backed Brown 64-30%).

Confused yet? What the hell actually happened?

Did something occur in the closing weeks of the campaign that drove all of the undecided “independents” in PPIC’s survey to Brown? Or were they already lined up behind him as Field and LAT/USC found? How big was the Latino margin for Brown in the end? What actually drove the vote?

First, let’s look at the independent voters. According to the LAT/USC survey, they voted 59-33% for Brown which is not far off from PPIC’s 56-38%. The difference is in the shift that PPIC found versus what the LAT/USC and Field had before the election. PPIC’s survey suggests a huge movement of independents for Brown. It’s hard to see what could have driven that.

But the movement among Latinos – about 15-20% of whom are likely DTS voters – is easily explained by Whitman’s handling of her housekeeper, Nicky Diaz. In the end, somewhere between 65-80% of Latinos ended up voting for Jerry Brown. With a 71% unfavorable rating among Latinos, that’s not hard to comprehend.

Mark Baldassare of PPIC argues that his polls in October and November were both correct, and that the same things that drove Latinos to Brown also may have propelled independents. We suspect it’s more likely that the problem is rooted in using questions, rather than actual voter lists, to identify “independents” and that the October survey, for whatever reason, didn’t capture what was actually happening among actual DTS voters. (PPIC has to ask questions to identify likely voters and to classify them by party because it uses random digit dialing instead of working from the Secretary of State’s list of registered voters.)

But let’s go back to that PPIC finding in October that showed the economy was the top issue and that voters saw Whitman as better on the issue than Brown.

What the data all seem to suggest is something Calbuzz has argued several times before: that the race for governor did not turn on issues, but on character. In the end, voters saw Brown as the more authentic candidate whose values reflected more closely their own. By emphasizing that he would not raise taxes without voter approval, he made himself safe to moderate voters who didn’t like what they saw from Whitman.

By emphasizing “at this stage of my life” Brown wanted nothing more than to do what needed to be done, he undercut the attacks that portrayed him as a tool of unions and other special interests.

In other words, the conventional wisdom – that the election would turn on the economy and jobs – turned out to be completely wrong. That’s the ground on which team Whitman wanted to fight, but once the Bill Clinton ad blew up in her face and she refused to take it down, and once Nicky Diaz surfaced, the stories that captured voters’ attention were all about character and integrity.

Why does any of this matter? Because when the story of the 2010 California governor’s race is written, it should not make it all about independents and Latinos except to the extent that these voters were moved by impressions of the character of the combatants.

BTW, the PPIC survey goes into great detail looking at the propositions and the initiative process. It’s chock full of interesting data that we’re not even touching on here.

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There are 6 comments for this post

  1. avatar tonyseton says:

    In his book “The Political Brain,” Drew Westen notes that 95% of us vote emotions rather than issues. That would easily explain the ultimate dissatisfaction with a nasty rich woman who didn’t bother to vote trying to buy the governor’s seat, while Brown was just Brown…eclectic but not malevolent.

  2. avatar Jimmyevansjr says:

    Campaign people should study Brown’s campaign. He demolished her on authenticity.
    His two best ads were: 1.) him looking at the camera and saying “no phony plans and snappy slogans” and 2.) the devastating “echo” ad, which showed her to be a politicians mouthing the same tired points of another unpopular politician.
    He took her weakness – how managed she was – and exploited it. He took his strength – his independence – and played to it. And he wrapped it all up by cannily identifying the voter mood – distrustful of politicians and government. He rendered her an inauthentic messenger. “Jobs, jobs, jobs” doesn’t work if no one believes you. It’s good lesson for anyone in politics on how the messenger can be the message.
    Inexplicably, even her late attacks on him – the whore thing and the video of him saying that all politicians lie and don’t have a plan – actually played to his strength, his independence and his candor. I think his authenticity message had something to do with why those things didn’t touch him.
    Obama could learn some things from this guy.

  3. avatar chrisfinnie says:

    I once asked the campaign manager for a campaign I’d worked on what we did right. We’d beaten a powerful incumbent in a district where he had a registration advantage. I wanted to share his pearls of wisdom with other candidates and campaigns. But this is what he said, “We had a really bad opponent.” As is so often the case with powerful incumbents, ours had recently been tied to a scandal. And that helped us beat him with our squeaky clean newbie.

    Brown didn’t have the advantage of being a clean slate–though I’ve also never heard of him having a dirty one in all his years in office either, unlike the incumbent I worked against. But Brown did have the advantage of a really bad opponent who repeatedly shot herself in the foot as Jimmy points out. The more she avoided the media (including dinner with Calbuzz) and the voters, the more people distrusted her slick, manipulated media persona. That one Q&A with the high-tech employees was devastating, as was just about every unscripted moment in her campaign. As Jimmy also accurately says, that contrast between her media blitz and the “real” Meg Whitman we occasionally glimpsed ultimately hurt more than helped her. And the Brown team and allies exploited it well too.

    • avatar BigCahuna says:

      Exactly right, Chris. Whitman lost this one mostly on her own. Her best adversary wasn’t the Brown campaign, but probably the Nurses — they were amazing.

  4. avatar Ernie Konnyu says:

    The take of this old Republican former politico on the 2010 gubernatorial election is that all Jerry Brown had to do was hold onto most of his 2 million plus Demo registration plurality and the ideological left among the independents and he was in. How CalBuzz can discount the Independent and Latino Demo edge is far beyond reason.

    CalBuzz, I suspect, is right on the character issue. If, as it seems, Brown was trusted by most Demos and Independents, Jerry would win by his sheer Demo numbers plurality. So, no matter what Whitman did, she had no practical chance to win.

    Another way of putting it is, if Jerry Brown did not screw up the campaign big, he was going to win anyway with his 2 mil plus Demo plurality.

    And that truism based on Cal demographics will holdup for perhaps the next decade or more for California Democrats. All they have to do is keep from screwing-up big and they’ll be in.

    And any unfortunate soul who wants to counter my argument better first acknowledge another fact, namely, that the majority of California school children are Hispanics and that young Latinos will continue to register during the next decade better than 4 to 1 Democrat.

  5. avatar chrisfinnie says:

    Actually, I want to agree with you. As long as the GOP continues to be the anti-immigrant party, they’ll continue to lose on sheer demographics. I’ve said that before, and your figures reinforce that argument.

    So my only question is why the Republican Party in California continues down this clearly losing road. I know racial hatred continues to energize my mother, despite the fact that her parents were immigrants (though legal ones, she’s quick to note), and that my parents made a good living in their last business where they hired illegal immigrants (that they helped become citizens during the last amnesty program). In my mind, her position is completely inconsistent. But she’s pretty rabid about it.

    But she’s also 82. And I suspect she’s not atypical of your demographic in the state–old, white, relatively wealthy, and untroubled by inconvenient facts like the ones I noted. This is not a demographic that leads to long-term success for a political party.

    So what plans does the CRP have to attract new voters? Other than social issues that appeal to the well-churched, I don’t see it. And I’d really like to know.

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