CA-Governor: Jerry Brown's Troubled Campaign?

Despite tens of millions of dollars in spending by Meg Whitman, Jerry Brown still leads in the California governor's race. Yet Democrats keep worrying whether Brown has what it takes to win a modern campaign. Are the concerns justified?
by | July 6, 2010

For a few months now, there has been a slow drumbeat of stories that suggest that Jerry Brown's campaign for governor of California is in more trouble than polls indicate. A Los Angeles Times piece helps clarify some of the issues. I thought this part was interesting:

Both finances and Brown's proclivities account for a striking difference in the campaigns: their staff rosters. Brown has eight campaign workers, five fundraisers and some full-time volunteers. Whitman has 66 staffers and an army of consultants.

Brown boasts of his frugality, but the staffing disparity has led to stumbles by his campaign.

One example: After Whitman released an anti-Brown ad last week, his campaign spent more than eight hours crafting a point-by-point defense — an eternity in the modern media environment. It consisted of responses to attacks that could have been foreseen long ago.

Whitman's far larger staff has aggressively reached out to voters in ways Brown's has not. Surrogates for the Republican candidate appear on radio shows and write for websites; the campaign has worked to attract Latino voters, nurses and women; Whitman's website is available in Spanish and Mandarin, and prominently displays links to policy proposals about the economy, education, spending and other issues. Brown's bare-bones website offers only one, a clean-energy plan wedged in amid news releases, and is presented only in English.

As you can see, part of what worries Democrats are simply the difficulties inherent in facing a candidate who will end up running the most expensive non-presidential campaign in American history. If these were the only concerns, Brown's campaign would look just fine to date.

Of course Whitman has a bigger campaign staff and more campaign ads. That would be true regardless of the Democratic candidate -- unless Democrats had found their own billionaire to match Meg Whitman.

Despite Whitman's ten of millions of dollars in spending (albeit some of it to tarnish her Republican primary foe, Steve Poizner, rather than to burnish her own image or to go after Brown), Brown still leads in the polls. Plenty of campaigns facing funding deficits have won by squirreling away their resources and holding their fire until the final weeks of the campaign.

As an example, in the 2000 Michigan Senate race Debbie Stabenow trailed by double digits a few weeks before the election. Spencer Abraham, if I recall correctly, was up by 18 points in one early October poll. But, that was before Stabenow went on the air. She ended up winning by a point-and-a-half.

Democrats, however, also have other concerns about Brown. They worry that he is undisciplined and behind the times. They're afraid that, despite a lifetime in politics, he's going to run an amateurish campaign. It doesn't take a $150 million campaign budget to respond promptly to an attack or to create a thorough campaign Web site or to pick a message and stick to it. For that, $23 million should be plenty.

It strikes that it would have been good for the Democrats to have Brown face a contested primary -- at least if money weren't an issue and such a campaign wouldn't have exhausted the winner's limited resources. Maybe in a primary Brown would have proven that he's just the elder statesman that Californians want. Maybe he would have articulated all sorts of creative solutions to the state's problems.

On the other hand, maybe he would have shown he doesn't know how to run a modern campaign and is unwilling to learn. Maybe he would have proven that he's washed up. Then, Democrats could have picked someone else.

Of course, money is very much an issue -- so maybe Democrats are better off having anointed Jerry Brown without quite knowing what they are getting.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com

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