One day back in July, Steve Glazer sighed heavily as he explained yet again why Jerry Brown’s campaign for governor was not responding to the barrages of TV ad attacks that Republican rival Meg Whitman kept firing at them.
Glazer, Brown’s unflappable but sharp-tongued manager, had just read yet another quote from a Democratic political professional, arguing that if the Attorney General did not begin to answer Whitman’s summer-long assault with TV advertising, he would fall fatally behind her by September, and never be able to catch up – the fate that befell Democrats Phil Angelides and Kathleen Brown in earlier contests.
“Every day we have to decide,” Glazer told Calbuzz, “if what they’re saying about Jerry is hurting us enough to cause us to have to go up on their air. So far, nothing they’ve thrown at us has caused us to change our plan.”
The Brown campaign’s daily refusal to be drawn into a no-win air war with Whitman in the three months after the June primary, despite near panic among his supporters, turned out to be the most crucial, high-risk strategic choice of the long campaign.
By practicing what Calbuzz dubbed political rope-a-dope back on October 1, 2009, the attorney general — assisted by an $8 million summertime assault on Whitman by labor –entered the fall campaign with an advertising budget that was comparable, if not equal, to the Armies of eMeg. Then, with his wiles, grit and shrewd political instincts, Krusty beat her like a drum.
Brown offered his own analysis Wednesday morning at a post-election press conference in Oakland.
“It’s very fortunate when I had no primary opposition. It’s also very unfortunate for Ms. Whitman that she had serious primary opposition. Those two right there sets the stage. And then thirdly, there’s more Democrats than Republicans, and we have somewhat mildly liberal-leaning decline to state voters.
“And then, of course,” he added with a grin, “you have my sparkling personality.”
Here are the five keys to Brown’s victory:
-He kept his powder dry until fall. Brown’s fund-raising potential was a big reason that he didn’t face any opposition in the Democratic primary; newly elected Lite Gov. Gavin Newsom abandoned a challenge to Brown in part because he said the AG had frozen contributions from many party backers. And, in any other year, Brown’s fund-raising for the governor’s race would have been impressive, if not prohibitive: by the time he won his no-opposition primary, he had raised $23 million. And would bring in at least another $10 million before the deal was done.
But none of that mattered in the race against Whitman, the billionaire who had vowed to spend whatever it took to win. (Just a little presumptuously, the woman who hadn’t voted for 28 years, declared: “I refuse to let California fail”). She had both the resources and the will to try to make that strategy work. The $160+ million that she ended up spending – most of it her own money – was almost incomprehensible and, by the end, she had eclipsed by far any candidate’s spending on any non-presidential race in the nation’s history.
Looking back, Brown had little choice but to husband his resources. But under the unrelenting pressure of Whitman’s assault, it would have been easy to blink and to begin putting at least some ads up — as even some of his closest advisers had urged. Such a move would have proved fatal because, no matter how much money Brown put into such an effort, she always would have had more.
Mike Murphy, Rob Stutzman and other field marshals in the Armies of eMeg were hoping to bleed Brown dry, in the manner of Ronald Reagan outspending the Soviet Union into oblivion. In the fierce winds of a campaign, the hardest thing sometimes is to stick to a plan, and the Brown team’s resolve in doing so made all the difference.
Krusty was fortunate to have his wife, Anne Gust Brown, Glazer, ad man Joe Trippi, pollster Jim Moore and other smart and experienced folks around him to help make the decision not to start spending. It helped, too, that as Attorney General, Brown could get himself onto TV and into headlines by investigating Michael Jackson’s death, the finances of the City of Bell or whatever other hot new thing called for the attentions of the state’s top law enforcement officer.
-The unions stepped up to the plate. To an unprecedented extent, California’s labor movement got behind Brown, recognizing that if they didn’t, Whitman might simply blow him away and they would be faced with a Republican governor whose top priority appeared to be dismantling the influence that unions have on state government, in favor of increasing that of corporate interests.
Despite what Whitman would later say, Brown had always had an uneasy relationship with the labor movement (and he likely will again). But they saw him as a far sight better than Whitman, who was touting her plan to cut 40,000 state workers, freeze pensions and generally whack blue-collar interests.
Consultants like Larry Grisolano, Roger Salazar, Jason Kruger, Steve Smith, Courtney Pugh, Richie Ross and others steered coalitions that mounted aggressive independent-expenditure efforts, ultimately spending $8 million attacking Whitman during the summer, $5 million on Spanish-language propaganda and Latino turnout and $5 million to find and turn out non-union, like-minded voters. They targeted Asian voters in four languages and spent several million more on mail, TV and organizing.
At a time when Team Whitman was trying to tear down Brown, the labor campaign appears to have helped keep Whitman from breaking away. Her plaintive crying about “Jerry Brown, Inc.” spending millions to beat her up were hilarious to anyone who realized what the differential was between their resources. But the union effort at least kept her from having a free pass in muddying up Brown while portraying herself as pure as the driven snow.
The state Democratic Party, under quirky Chairman John Burton, also played a crucial role in putting together an aggressive and effective get-out-the-vote coordinated campaign operation that boosted and took advantage of the Democrats’ big voter registration advantage, in a year when Republicans everywhere else in the country out-organized them.
One caveat to all this: there was apparently a four-week period in the summer when Whitman was advertising but no IE ads were on the air. And during that window, Whitman’s ads appear to have driven up her own negatives and made voters less likely to support her. She had, it seems, already tarnished her own brand.
Brown had a simple message and he stuck to it. Despite the legions of ad makers and marketers that Whitman threw at him, Brown’s plain, simple and cheap ads were better.
Consciously and decidedly un-slick – to contrast with Whitman’s over-produced Madison Avenue spots — Brown’s guerrilla ads were inspired and produced by Trippi and often edited by committee at the Oakland headquarters with the help of Christina Sheffey and Paul Blank — online and creative whiz kids Trippi had sent West. “Retired” ad man David Doak was a key adviser and Glazer, Gust and Brown were deeply engaged and made the final decisions about wording and traffic.
From the very first ad, shot by Francis Ford Coppola and narrated by Peter Coyote, Brown’s spots often featured Krusty talking directly into the camera and focusing on simple themes:
He had the know-how and experience to do the job – not another rookie after Gov. Schwarzmuscle – and he wouldn’t raise taxes without a vote of the people. The latter pitch for fiscal sanity was a key element in winning independents. Everyone knew he had a soft heart. But he needed to prove he had a hard head. And that line helped make the sale.
They also they made the best single ad of the season – the echo ad – which had been in the can for weeks in various iterations and was released only in the final days. Showing Whitman and Schwarzenegger saying exactly the same things – no wonder, since both messages had been crafted by Murphy – the ad ended with a devastating line from the San Jose Mercury News endorsement of Brown: “She utterly lacks the qualifications to be governor.”
-He won his base overwhelmingly and also captured the middle. The Latino vote, long described as “the sleeping giant” of California politics woke up and helped propel Brown to victory. His roots with Cesar Chavez and his long connections in the community helped organizers, especially after Meg’s Nicky Diaz debacle. He swept Latinos 64-30% according to the National Election Pool Survey of more than 3,800 voters by Edison Research.
Brown also cleaned Whitman’s clock among women – 55-39% — and he even carried men 51-45%.
Of course, Brown carried the 27% of voters who said they were liberals 86-8% while Whitman won the 33% who said they conservatives by 78-17%. Most important though, Brown carried the 40% of voters who defined themselves as moderates by 60-35%. Winning the middle was key: Brown knew it and he pitched his entire campaign to that end.
IMPORTANT NOTE TO POLITICAL JUNKIES AND FUTURE RESEARCHERS: The NEPS/Edison Research data on the vote by party cannot be counted on. The data are NOT based on party registration but on party identification.
This was a nationwide survey, including states that do not have party registration, as California does. So for consistency in reporting national data, party ID was used to record partisan affiliations. The question asked was this: “No matter how you voted today, do you usually think of yourself as a Democrat, a Republican, an independent or something else.” In the survey, 42% of respondents identified themselves as Democrats, 31% as Republicans and 27% as independents or something else.
We won’t know until January, when the California Secretary of State releases the official Statement of Vote, what the actual party composition was in this election. But it won’t be this. Clearly, huge numbers of voters identified themselves as “independent” who are not registered as Decline to State. (Actual registration – although not necessarily the same as those who participated by mail and at the polls – is 44% Democrat, 31% Republican and 20% Decline to State.)
That’s why the survey found Brown winning the self-identified Democrats 91-7%, Whitman winning the Republicans 84-11% and Whitman also winning the “independents and others” by 47-43%. These numbers are simply not reliable.
It’s not possible for Brown to have won moderates 60-35% and to have lost the independents.
-He won the authenticity debate. Although Brown was often a loose cannon on the campaign trail – at various points, he compared Whitman to Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels, trashed would-be ally Bill Clinton as a liar and didn’t object when one of his handlers called Whitman a “whore” – he also came across as refreshingly real, compared to Whitman’s tightly scripted, highly marketed campaign.
In the debates, he made fun of his age and his lifelong presidential ambitions, lectured Whitman in human terms about her mistreatment of her housekeeper, and refused to pander to xenophobes on illegal immigration, saying that undocumented workers were not “serfs.”
He never gave up his stream of consciousness impressionistic verbal style, even when it cost him, as it did in the last debate when he tried to defend someone in his campaign referring to Whitman as a “whore.” (We think, but can’t prove, it was his wife, Anne.)
When asked at the Women’s Conference in Long Beach who he’d call for advice in the middle of the night, he said he didn’t have to call anyone because she’d be sleeping right next to him (that would be Anne). In several of his ads he said, “At this stage of my life . . . “ making an asset out of his Gandalfian presence in California politics.
We think he did trim and darken his eyebrows – as Calbuzz had urged long ago. But other than that, he was just who he is: a wizened 72-year-old lifelong politician who knows, as he put it, where the bodies are buried in Sacramento and what skeletons are still in the closet there.
Glazer said it would come down to authenticity versus marketing. And it did.