California’s candidates for governor face the gnarliest combination of public anger and economic distress in decades, making the 2010 race a text book case study in political communications: How does a wannabe governor effectively tell extremely pessimistic voters he or she understands the depths of their misery, without succumbing to despair, and while offering hope for the future that doesn’t over-reach or seem totally naïve?
Call it the Carter Conundrum, in homage to failed one term President Jimmy Carter, who simultaneously faced double digit inflation, huge unemployment and the first assault on America’s national security by violent Muslim fundamentalists. He famously screwed the pooch in that deal by tapping fully into the gloom and anxiety of voters about the seemingly intractable conditions they faced – and got walloped by a sunny and upbeat Ronald Reagan in 1980 for his trouble.
In watching the candidates for governor so far, Calbuzz sees markedly different approaches to the problem. Here are some rail bird observations on the strengths, weakness and holes in their strategies, at the first turn of the race.
What the candidates face. A few factoids to set the stage:
California voters have a most dismal view about the direction of the state, as both the Field Poll and PPIC show about eight in 10 voters saying we’re on the wrong track.
Part of it is the state’s higher-than-national unemployment rate, part the years of failed leadership, massive budget deficits and political gridlock in Sacramento. The Field Poll reported that 59% of voters, including 54% of Republicans, expect Gov. Schwarzenegger to leave the state in worse shape than he found it – along with near universal (95%) agreement that we’re experiencing bad economic times and the feeling among a significant strong majority of people (54%) that they’re personally worse off than they were a year ago.
Interestingly, the last high point for optimism, when Californians thought the state was clearly on the right track, was back in August 2000, as 59% of voters said they were better off than the year before and Gov. Gray Davis enjoyed a 59-35% right track-wrong track assessment.
Of course the economy was in far better shape and neither the Enron-induced energy crisis nor the 9/11 terrorists had struck yet.
As a political matter, however, there was another dynamic at play: Davis, consciously and conscientiously, chose NEVER to convey bad news, but personally only conveyed good news. If the Parks Department was going to cut fees, for example, that was an announcement for the governor. If the Parks Department was going to raise fees – that was an announcement for the Parks Director. It was at least part of the reason why his approval rating was around 60%, two years after his election.
To some extent, this is simply political Public Relations 101, which Schwarzenegger seemed not to understand, at least at first. He spent his first two years in office constantly decrying how bad things were in California. The result: People believed him.
After voters waxed his 2005 2004 initiatives, he re-emerged as Hopeful Arnold and his approval ratings went back up. That they’ve fallen again is mostly due to global, national and state economic woes, but also because he consistently focuses on problems and points the finger of blame – his State of the State speeches are notable exceptions – that remind everyone things are terrible with no way out.
The Jerry & Jeremiah show: Given Attorney General Brown’s duck-and-hide, Rose Garden strategy, it’s early to assess fully the themes he intends to stress on the campaign trail. Back in April, in his speech to the state Democratic convention, he was a thundering populist, railing against investment bankers and corporate power. In September, in a talk to Willie Brown’s power breakfast in San Francisco, he tried a new line – “optimism of the will” – that was one-part Joel Osteen and one-part Frederic Nietzsche, which combined with stock rhetoric about hope and the Golden State.
More recently, however, he’s devolved into full Jeremiah mode, recalling the biblical prophet of doom and gloom who played a central role in the aptly named Book of Lamentations.
“The state is profoundly screwed up,” Brown said on KGO the other day, “and anybody who thinks they got an idea, I would say, ‘Give me a call, I’d like to listen to it.’ Because I can tell you we’re in for blood, sweat and tears over the next four years no matter who runs.”
Putting aside the fact that, because it’s Jerry, we’re not entirely sure whether the blood sweat and tears reference was to Churchill or the guys who made “You Made Me So Very Happy,” the statement itself would have made his top political consultants wince, if he had any top political consultants:
Here’s the thing: People know the state is profoundly screwed up – they don’t need to elect somebody to tell them things are screwed up. What they’re looking for in a leader is someone to show them a way the state might not be screwed sometime in the pretty near-term future.
If Brown stays with the Jeremiah act, he’ll end up getting tossed into a cistern, just like the original guy. Especially with those Old Testament eyebrows.
eMeg and the culture of “I.” Meg Whitman’s message could not be clearer: “I will not let California fail.”
Echoing the Brown line, eMeg tells people, in her carefully controlled appearances , that California is screwed up, schools are lousy, we spend too much, state workers are greed heads who deserve to be fired and nobody in Sacramento knows anything.
Pivoting, she then essentially says that the only hope for the state is Meg Whitman – “I will not let California fail.” eMeg can turn things around because she has experience in the private sector, knows how to whack a payroll, cripple the unions and smack sense into the worthless Legislature.
She can do all these things, it seems, because she has “a spine of steel,” i.e. she’s got more backbone than Schwarzenegger, who made essentially the same arguments as her in winning the 2003 recall. So: She’s more muscular than Mr. Universe. Really? Will voters believe this?
Her diatribes about California being a mess may resonate, but what, really, can she do about it? Will voters believe that she has a clue how to get things done in the political hothouse of Sacramento when her only experience is being the Alpha Dog in a corporation where she yapped and everybody around her yelped? That’s not how politics works.
Poizner: Yes we can. Interestingly, Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, who’s nowhere in the polls, is at present the only guy who’s selling a message of better days ahead.
Part of it is his strong focus on private sector expansion. Where eMeg aims her moral rectitude and disapproval at the need to inflict pain on the processes and politics of the Capitol, Poizner seems to view Sacramento as a side show and focuses his campaign critique on the need for economic growth.
Part of it, too, is the specificity of the solutions he offers. As a policy matter, we happen to think his prescription of radical tax and spending cuts is Flat Earth Society stuff, but at least he’s got a plan, which he presents in a soft-spoken but upbeat manner.
Poizner’s biggest problem is one of stature: He looks like a nerd, especially compared to the commanding figure of eMeg and the ascetic Brown.
But that’s not altogether a bad thing: If Californians have a history of electing charismatic governors – Reagan, Jerry Brown I and Schwarzenegger – they also have a tendency to course correct with low-key, pragmatic nerds – George Deukmejian, Pete Wilson and Davis come to mind. It’s no accident that Deukmejian just endorsed Poizner.
Poizner sells himself essentially as an engineer, a guy who wants to get under the hood and get his hands dirty fixing stuff. There are worse messages to try in the troubled political landscape of 2010.