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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Whitman’s California Buy-Out

Query: is it possible for a political candidate to spend too much money on too many television ads? California Republican gubernatorial hopeful Meg Whitman seems determined to find out.
Those who read my recent piece on the California governor’s race may recall the amazement with which Golden State cognoscenti are viewing eMeg’s barrage of early ads. It’s not just the size of her ad buys that’s impressive–you can’t, after all, exceed saturation levels–but it’s the timing. Her “introductory bio” ad started running night and day all across California during the Winter Olympics, long before the June primary, and very long before the November general election. If possible, her attack ads on primary opponent Steve Poizner have been even more ubiquitous, and she’s just put up a new “positive” ad that’s very hard to miss.
As political reporting site Calbuzz noted this week, no one really knows if Whitman’s strategy will work:

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.

That’s saying a lot, since California was the scene of the 1998 campaign of former airline executive Al Checchi, which broke all the previous spending records. In the end, the Checchi campaign’s torrent of attack ads on Democratic rival Jane Harman appear to have backfired, becoming the main issue in a campaign eventually won by a third candidate, Gray Davis (Davis strategist Gary South memorably described Checchi’s attacks on Harman as a “murder-suicide”).
It’s unclear whether a similar fate could befall Whitman, since she has the luxury of just one significant opponent in each cycle: Poizner in the primary, and Jerry Brown in the general. But if she keeps up her current pace of appearances on the tube, her name ID will soon approach 100%, and at that point an undefined but real set of otherwise persuadable voters may get tired of her act, and perhaps wonder if someone so excessive in the spending of campaign dollars is really a good bet to cut state spending, which is her main campaign promise.
You don’t have to have a stake in this campaign to watch Whitman’s experiment in sheer dollar power with a sort of fascinated horror.

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