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Here’s to 2010: The Top 10 Stories of the Year

Friday, December 31st, 2010

As Tom Meyer presents his right brain look back at the political detritus of 2010, the left progressive brain types in our Department of Belles-Lettres and Fine Writing Done Cheap wish you all the best for a new decade with this update of our annual New Year’s column:

The hoariest cliché in the news business – besides  Where Are They Now, the Irrelevant Anniversary yarn and frying an egg on the sidewalk during a heat wave – is the end-of-year Top 10 list.

And at Calbuzz, we’re nothing if not hoary clichés. Or maybe clichéd whores. Whatever.

As you find yourself face down in a bowl of gelatinous guacamole on New Year’s morn, trying to remember why you’re wearing rubber underwear and Raider wrist bands, here’s some bathroom reading, the Calbuzz Top 10 stories of the year, a 2011 primer for those who got drunk and missed 2010.

(Click the cartoon  for a larger image)

GOP awakens the sleeping giant. From Steve Poizner’s demagoguery on illegal immigration  to Meg Whitman’s serial mishandling of her own housekeeper scandal, Republicans worked overtime in the 2010 campaigns to alienate Latino voters throughout California. In the end, their no-path-to-citizenship kow-towing to the right-wing  proved an utter disaster, as Democrats reaped big totals among the state’s increasingly crucial electoral bloc, which represented nearly one in four votes on election day.

eMeg’s secret diary. When a slow news day spurred our fervid imaginations to post a spoof version of Meg Whitman’s private thoughts, we had no way of knowing that it would become a case study of life in imitation of art. But her real-life treatment of the help, coupled with her corner-cutting business ethics and rules-don’t apply to me campaign style combined to transform the race for governor into a referendum on her character, which voters decided they didn’t much like.

The triumph of St. Ignatius. When a national political reporter asked Jerry Brown early in the campaign how he would deal with eMeg’s mega-bucks spending, the governor drew deeply upon his Catholic  education and sniffed that he would respond with “Ignatian indifference.” His subsequent decision  to essentially ignore Whitman’s summer-long assault on him, along with the aid of some independent expenditure advertising by labor allies, made Saint Iggie look like a genius as Krusty wrote yet another new chapter in the half-century saga of his political evolution.

Scientists measure standard quantum limit of money. Along with the rest of the political world, Calbuzz watched in endless fascination as Her Megness shattered all previous records for a self-funded candidate; desperate for a metaphor to help measure its ultimate impact, we turned to the field of theoretical physics. When the deal went down, Herself forked out more than $200K every 24 hours for every day she was in the race, and the only ones who had much to show for it were the vast legions of consultants and hangers-on who took her to the cleaners.

California’s got the blues. In a mid-term election when national Republicans opened an extra-large can of wupass on Democrats, contrary Golden State voters proved solid gold for the party of donkeys and jackasses. Amid waves of wise and well-intentioned advice on what they might do differently, state GOPers decided to double down on idiocy as they shunned candidates who might actually be electable and turned Senate wannabe Carly Fiorina into an angry, snarling parody of a right-winger mouthing political stands more befitting the state of Utah and proving anew  that ideology is more important to Californians than gender.

Truth, no consequences. After death panels, the birther movement and the consistently sensational ratings of Fox News, we shouldn’t have been surprised that California’s airwaves filled to bursting with misrepresentations, half-truths and lies. Naifs that we are, it took a while to understand that we were witnessing nothing less than the death of truth in politics.

Don’t let the door hit you in the ass. There were few better examples of the truth-is-always-fungible politics than Governor Schwarzmuscle’s endless exertions aimed at portraying his years in office as an era of splendid success. In case you missed our in-depth one-word analysis of his record – FAIL – you can find more dispassionate and detailed, but no less damning, takes on the matter here, and here.

Tree huggers ascendant. Amid 12+ % unemployment in the state, some cynical smokestack types tried to reignite the economic growth vs.  environmental protection conflict. California voters not only saw through the either-or argument on climate change but also broke off their brief flirtation with offshore oil drilling after the Earth Day Deepwater Horizon disaster led Arnold to abandon his ill-laid plans to award the first state lease in more than 40 years.

Reform on life support. Amid a trove of smart proposals for political, governance and budget reform,  all the good ideas went exactly nowhere. Fueled by corporate cynicism, the contradictory views of voters and the steady transformation of democracy into a plutocracy the forces of the status quo won out yet again.

ABC: Always Believe Calbuzz. Reporting more than 3 million page views in 2010, an analysis by our Department of Weights and Measures advises that along with the heavily-hyphenated-meat-and-potatoes-sizzle-and-steak-cheeseburger-and-fries-day-in-day-out political coverage our readers look for, loyal Calbuzzers also count on our special-brand-of-journalism-you-won’t-find-it-anywhere-but-here-world-exclusive scoops, whether it’s the inside story of Jerry Brown’s secret eyebrow makeover, prize winning reporting on John Burton’s foul mouth or world-class forecasting on Major League Baseball (Giants win!).

With all best wishes for a happy and safe amateur night celebration, we thank you all for reading. See you in 2011.

Five Ways eMeg Blew Her Campaign for Governor

Thursday, November 4th, 2010

In June 2009, a few months after she launched her campaign to become governor of California, Meg Whitman abruptly fired Nicky Diaz Santillan, an undocumented Mexican immigrant who had served as her housekeeper for nine years.

No one knew it at the time, but Whitman’s words and action in the privacy of her home on June 20, and on the phone four days later, would sow the seeds of her political loss, a debacle that will define her forever as the billionaire who spent more money on a political race than anyone in history and won nothing but a humiliating defeat.

Recollections differ sharply about exactly what happened when Whitman sent Diaz packing. The former eBay CEO insisted she was gracious and caring toward someone she saw as a “member of her extended family.” It broke her heart, she said at one point; only later did she suggest Nicky  should be deported.

At a Sept. 29 press conference with LA Ambulance Chaser Gloria Allred, Diaz said Whitman was cruel and heartless and insisted that her lawyer had told her there was nothing to be done.

“From now on, you don’t know me and I don’t know you,” Diaz said Whitman told her on the phone. “You never have seen me and I have never seen you.”

What Nicky revealed about Meg: The precise details of the episode may remain fuzzy – but its political impact is crystal clear. In the end, the Diaz story dealt two grave wounds that doomed Whitman’s candidacy:

First, the Republican nominee’s memorable Oct. 1 press conference responding to Diaz’s allegations was a public relations disaster. A real-time, real-life event, it was one of only a handful of times that California voters would see Whitman in public, outside of the carefully scripted and controlled campaign events or the unprecedented barrage of TV ads that she beamed into their living rooms. And polls would show that the unfavorable image they already had of the candidate would only grow more negative.

More broadly, Whitman’s handling of the Diaz affair – and her improbable insistence that she had no idea that Diaz was illegal and baseless accusation that Nicky stole the mail — underscored a central failing of her $160+ million effort. Ralph Whitehead of the University of Massachusetts once explained that in an executive leader, voters look for someone with a hard head and a soft heart. Whitman surely passed the first test. But her handling of Nicky Diaz – which had already occurred and could not be fixed – exposed her as a rich woman with the hardest of hearts.

She might, back then, have mitigated the damage that came later if she had done what most human beings would do for someone who had cleaned their toilets for nine years: hire her an immigration attorney, give her severance pay, help her find a new job. Whitman did none of those things. Voters – especially Latinos and women – concluded she was, at best, not like them and, at worst, inhuman.

“I could not be any prouder of the race we ran,” Whitman said in a farewell letter to supporters on her campaign web page. It’s a typical statement from a woman who could never admit a mistake, whether it was flipping IPO shares, booting her maid to the curb or refusing to pull down her negative ads when implored to do so in front of 14,000 women.

Because Whitman’s debacle cost an unprecedented sum – including about $142 million of her own money – it will be endlessly dissected by pundits, pros and political scientists alike. Calbuzz covered the race for 20 months, and our archive is filled with reporting, analysis and candid commentary about what we saw as its weaknesses from the beginning. Here is a look at eMeg’s five biggest blunders:

-She never gave people a reason to be for her. At some point, some determined academic will calculate the percentage of negative to positive ads that Whitman ran. Our bet is that at least three-fourths were attacks, first on her primary opponent Steve Poizner and later on Jerry Brown.

Whitman came out swinging early last winter against Poizner, long before most Californians had any idea who Steve Poizner was. After she captured the GOP nomination in June, she almost immediately started bashing Brown. The net effect: the first thing that many people came to learn about Meg Whitman was that she was mean-spirited.

The Murphy-Stutzman-Gomez consultant brain trust programmed their meal ticket to chant jobs, budget and education, which she did. These were to be the decisive issues that would drive Whitman to victory. What they overlooked was that they were running a billionaire newcomer who could not connect by eating chili dogs and traveling in a green bus.

Whitman needed to convince voters of the most critical question that Brown’s pollster, Jim Moore, asks in surveys: Which candidate best fits this description — Has the knowledge and skill to be governor?

But beyond endlessly identifying herself as the person who ran eBay, the Whitman campaign never really introduced their candidate to voters, never gave Californians more than a mantra of political platitudes and a few quick images of her and her husband when they were younger.

Who, in the end, was she? Why hadn’t she voted for 28 years? How come she’d never been engaged in a single civic project? Why did she lie about things she had no reason to lie about – like how government interference slowed down building a new headquarters for Pay Pal, or her position on offshore oil drilling or whether one of her ads included a shot of a border fence?

Calbuzz christened her “eMeg” at the beginning of the race and, in a very real sense, she never told us more about herself than that, which may be why the name stuck, and spread into publications across the country.

-She couldn’t handle the immigration issue. One of the big unanswered questions about the campaign remains what Whitman’s handlers knew about the Diaz matter and when they knew it. Either she told them the full details of the matter and they did nothing about it, which would amount to political malpractice on their part, or she kept the story to herself, which would amount to felony stupidity on her part.

After Whitman told reporters that she had informed her top advisers about the Nicky Diaz events, Calbuzz tried to ask her consultants what they’d been told and when. That’s when her top people stopped speaking to Calbuzz at all. That was more than a month ago. There was no way to answer our question without throwing either themselves or their candidate under the bus. So they just froze us out until we said we wouldn’t ask the question any more.

One of the reasons that the Diaz issue gained such traction was that Whitman offered up a constantly shifting kaleidoscope of positions on illegal immigration. When Poizner made it the centerpiece of his primary campaign, she tacked hard right, enlisting campaign chairman Pete Wilson – the former governor known on the streets of Mexico City as hijo de puta — to cut an ad declaring she would be “tough as nails.” But as soon as the primary ended, she lurched back to the center, with an expensive effort to woo Latino voters, a baldly transparent move that came across as crass opportunism, if not utter hypocrisy.

Once the personal became enmeshed with the political on the issue, she could never untangle herself. She couldn’t help Nicky Diaz become legal because she had taken a stand against a path to citizenship – a policy endorsed by most California voters, including about nine in 10 Latinos.

And she made matters much worse at the Univision debate in Fresno when she told a young Mexican-born woman – valedictorian in her high-school class about to graduate from Fresno State – that she was taking the place at the university of a legitimate California citizen. Any non-white parent hearing that would have been appalled at her utter lack of compassion.

No wonder the LA Times reported that exit polls found Latinos voted 2-to-1 for Brown.

-She didn’t have dinner with Calbuzz. Our standing dinner invitation to eMeg, first issued on Labor Day 2009, became a running joke on our site and elsewhere. But her refusal to sit down with us in an informal setting came to symbolize something greater – a contempt for the press in general, founded on her arrogant belief that she had enough money and power to go over the heads of the media.

Whitman gave an interview to Michael Finnegan of the LA Times the day after she announced her candidacy, and she made several stumbles in it, as he pointed out. For whatever reason, she reacted to that experience not by seeking to learn from her mistakes, but by walling herself from the press forever.

Far more serious than stiffing us for dinner was her refusal throughout the campaign to grant an interview to the venerable San Francisco Chronicle, the second largest newspaper in the state; when she refused to meet with the paper’s editorial board, as every candidate for governor in memory has done, it evinced nothing more than contempt, if not abject fear.

The press corps roiled with tales of interview requests ignored or turned down and, at one point, she even refused to answer questions at a press conference she had called. The net effect was to send a message that Whitman had something to hide, that she was afraid to engage in the normal give and take between politicians and reporters, and it raised suspicions among voters.

Not that anyone in the real world cares about whether reporters have access. They don’t mind if a candidate stiffs the media, if she speaks to them, mingles with them, does something other than staged events with phony, planted questions. People care about media access only to the extent that it’s a surrogate for their access

With her retinue of consultants, pollsters and handlers, Whitman presented herself to the public as being more important and too insulated to understand people like them. It is telling that the California Nurses Association character of Queen Meg, who followed her around the state, drove eMeg crazy, because it cut too close to the truth.

Worse, according to a variety of political consultants from the left and right, Whitman’s failure to get out among the media early in the campaign, where she could make mistakes and learn from them, rendered her brittle and unstable at the end of the campaign, when she needed to be sure on her feet. Whitman’s consultants failed to help her handle the unscripted moments of the campaign — and it was in those moments that voters saw who she really is.

The ultimate example occurred at the Women’s Conference in Long Beach, where she managed to get herself booed by 14,000 women by her mishandling of an idiotic proposal from the “Today Show’s” Matt Lauer to take down her negative advertising. “Of course I will, Matt,” she could have said. “As soon as Jerry Brown Inc. takes down their attack ads on me.”  A seasoned pro could have knocked it out of the park. Just days before the election, she was still a rookie.

When it became clear in the final weeks of the campaign that she was losing, she resorted to driving around in a bus and ordering junk food at diners in a by now pathetically too late effort to “reintroduce” herself to the public.

-She ran only one memorable ad and that blew up in her face. It is astonishing that Whitman spent more than $100 million on paid television advertising and even those of us who covered the campaign would be hard pressed to recall any of them that penetrated.

The sole exception was an ad she put up after Labor Day featuring an excerpt from a 1992 presidential primary debate between Brown and Bill Clinton, in which Clinton attacks Brown on many of the same issues Whitman was trying to press.

At first it looked like a killer ad. But when Brown and his fellow Democrats quickly produced, first, a statement from Clinton and then the former president himself to back Brown and assail Whitman for misusing the comments, it backfired on her. Things went from bad to worse when the former CNN reporter whose long-ago TV story was the basis for the whole controversy came forward to say he’d made a big factual error – and Whitman still refused to take down her ad.

This was a Big Moment in the campaign because it shifted the ground precisely where Team eMeg did not want the campaign to go – away from issues and toward character. The ad was mainly about the issues, in particular Proposition 13 and taxes, and secondarily about Brown’s truthfulness. Here was an icon of the Democratic Party saying Jerry Brown could not be trusted on taxes and spending. That was the single most dangerous charge Brown faced. But the ad turned out to be an exploding cigar. When Clinton repudiated it and Whitman defended it anyway, the story shifted to “liar, liar, pants on fire.” And what Team eMeg did NOT want was a campaign about Whitman’s character.

No one should have been surprised that the LATimes/USC survey found that among likely voters Brown had her beat 2-1 when rated on the quality of “tells the truth.”

-She ran as a brand and over-saturated the market. Months ago, Brown’s campaign manager Steve Glazer predicted to us that the race would be about authenticity, with Whitman, fundamentally a marketing executive whose closest confidant, Henry Gomez, was also a marketing guy, trying to brand herself and Brown, a lifelong public official, running as the real deal.

Calbuzz recognized the danger presented by Whitman’s unlimited marketing budget when we laid out how the “standard quantum limit” could inevitably affect perceptions of voters in a political campaign – even one as big as a California governor’s race.

“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,” we wrote back in April.

“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.”

Lo and behold, that’s what happened. Whitman’s advertising became so ubiquitous, so intrusive, that voters found her in their living rooms, uninvited, at all hours of the day and night. It didn’t take long before Whitman’s branding campaign ran up against another scientific principle: The T Factor.

This strong force, according to the Calbuzz Department of Weights and Measures, is based on the power of  Tivo to mute and completely skip advertisements, especially nauseating political spots; it is greater than, or equal to, a voter’s curiosity about what an ad might have to say. (This is represented by the formula T≥b*X, where b=bullshit and X=off.)

Certain political consultants will, of course, dismiss this theorem out of hand because if candidates were to believe it, they would make less money. But not only did Whitman’s advertising over-saturate the market (diminishing exponentially the stickiness of later ads) but they actually fed Brown’s narrative about her: that she was a greedy billionaire with too much money to spend and too little respect for ordinary people.

Every new ad had to overcome that revulsion before its content had a chance of being heard and processed. And in the end, voters just tuned her out.

How eMeg’s Spending Is Like Quantum Physics

Tuesday, April 6th, 2010

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.

As eMeg henchman Mike Murphy tweeted last week: @stevepoizner gives a master class in how to turn a campaign puffery book into an utter disaster. Typical TV newsclip: http://bit.ly/dirAyU.

Ouch.