In the study of physics, the “standard quantum limit” is the point at which the precise magnitude of a physical quantity can no longer be measured.
Two months before the primary election for governor, Meg Whitman’s unprecedented campaign spending — including another cool $20 million tossed in late Monday — has hit the standard quantum limit of politics: its effect on the governor’s race has moved into unknowable territory.
To any would-be prognosticator, seer or soothsayer Calbuzz offers this verbum sapienti: Like scientists mulling data from the Large Hadron Collider, we have no idea what the effect of $100-150 million in campaign spending will do in a California statewide election, because we’ve never seen anything like it.
As the new USC/LA Times poll makes clear, billionaire political novice eMeg has thus far used a record-shattering $47 million plus to bury primary rival Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner deep beneath a 40-point lead. Confirming earlier PPIC and Field surveys, she’s also edged slightly ahead of Democrat Jerry Brown, the Attorney General, who’s surely contemplating the uncertainties of running against Quantum Mechanics Meg and her possible $150 million campaign fund.
As Lou Cannon wrote in Politics Daily last week:
“Given Brown’s long preoccupation with campaign finance, there is a touch of irony to his present predicament… Brown seems shaken by the magnitude of the Whitman commercials. He complained during my interview that Whitman had reduced “the public space of America to a 30-second commercial on sports and entertainment shows.” Later, again deploring Whitman’s spending, he said. “The future of our very way of government is at stake in this election.”
Some among the cognoscenti wonder if voters will, at some point, find a chalk-on-a-blackboard cognitive dissonance created by a candidate who spends with no limits to become governor in order to cut spending.
Others suggest that as Whitman’s spending keeps growing exponentially, it will bump up against some outer limit where cash begins to have diminishing returns, or even a negative impact, as voters find repulsive her free-spending ways amid the state’s worst recession in a generation.
If so, she sure hasn’t hit that limit yet. As USC/Times and other polls make clear:
1-For now, at least, the pro-choice Whitman has erased the gender gap that has historically benefited Democratic candidates in statewide races. In the USC/Times poll she led 44-38% among women; in the other two big independent surveys, Whitman and Brown were essentially tied: 45-43% in her favor in the Field Poll and 43-40% for Brown in PPIC.
2-She’s splitting the independents and is virtually tied among moderates, while Brown has yet to consolidate even six in 10 Democrats and just two thirds of the liberals.
3-Her as-yet-unchallenged campaign narrative — declaring business experience a crucial credential for running government – may be preposterous in the wake of the banking and derivative scandals and a worldwide recession, but it’s making some inroads among California voters: In last fall’s USC/LAT poll, voters were divided evenly on whether business or government experience was the best qualification. Now, business experience has a slight plurality – 40-35%.
As our friend Cathy Decker of the Los Angeles Times put it: “The survey demonstrated how thoroughly Whitman, the billionaire former head of eBay, has dominated the California elections thus far.”
About 65% of all voters say they’ve seen TV ads and 75% of those people have seen Whitman ads. The effect is powerful.
Jesse Contario of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner (one of the firms that did the poll) told Calbuzz that voters who have seen Whitman ads favor her 53-40% over Brown, compared to voters who have not seen ads at all, who favor Brown 40-33%. Moreover, among voters who say they’ve seen ads, but not Whitman’s (i.e., they’ve seen Poizner ads or think they’ve seen ads for Brown), Brown leads 48-36%.
Calbuzz told you back in March: eMeg’s money — now $59 million of her own invested — is moving voters. But maybe not as much as you might think.
Whitman’s favorable-to-unfavorable ratio was 17-14% in the USC/LA Times poll last fall; now it’s 30-23% — a net improvement of just 4%. That’s not a lot to show for $47 million, especially when just 8% of her support is very favorable.
Fortunately for Brown, very little of Meg’s increased favorability has come from Democrats and independents. In fact, her Democratic favorability went down from 12-19 in the fall to 21-31 now – a net decrease of 3%, while her independent favorability went from 16-14% in the fall to 25-21% now, a net improvement of just 2%.
eMeg’s big jump came among Republicans who favored her 26-8% in the fall but 47-12% now – a net pick-up of 35 percentage points.
Moreover, while Whitman is beating Brown 50-38% among white voters, she’s losing blacks 45-22% (a number that historically seems likely to move to about 90-10% by the end of the race) and 52-29% among Latinos (even before Whitman’s views on immigration and Brown’s history with Latinos have been put out there).
“Her $47 million has grown her name ID but hasn’t cemented any strong feelings for her candidacy,” said Brown campaign manager Steve Glazer.
Still, for Brown, the political standard quantum limit factor poses a dilemma.
Although his campaign fund of $15 million might seem impressive in any other year, in 2010 it suggests that in the end he will be able to afford 12 to 15 weeks of advertising.
For Brown, the question is when he goes on the air.
Conventional wisdom holds that he should save his resources until the fall, when voters are paying more attention and he can close the argument. But the quantum physics of Whitman’s spending have blown out all the theories of conventional wisdom.
Brown can expect to be battered on a daily basis by Whitman starting with the day after the primary – or even before – and he needs to think about stopping the bleeding before she has totally defined him and herself and he’s in a Poizner-like hole too deep to escape.
But if he goes on the air now and tries to knock Meg down a peg, he’ll burn through resources he’ll desperately need when he’s facing down the barrel of a huge cannon this fall.
Democratic Gov. Gray Davis had to make a decision in the winter of 2001, when former LA Mayor Dick Riordan, the favorite to become the Republican candidate against him, started gaining popularity among Democrats and independents.
In order to keep him from making further inroads into Davis’s base, Davis went on the air and attacked Riordan from the left on abortion. Little did they know that the attack would also weaken Riordan among Republicans, causing his candidacy to collapse.
Brown, it appears from the USC/LA Times poll anyway, does not yet have a similar problem. Whitman’s favorability among Democrats and independents has not grown and Brown still has an edge among self-described moderates, 44-41%. This helps explain why Brown’s campaign brain trust feels confident in holding fire while Meg continues to spend millions.
At the same time, if Brown was counting on Poizner to take a bite out of eMeg, he’s likely to be disappointed.
The embarrassing spectacle of Poizner being booed and picketed by hundreds of high school students, teachers and administrators from Mt. Pleasant High last week, after hoping to boost his chances by writing a feel-good book about them, is just the latest misstep in a campaign that has been full of them.