Brown could keep Calif. blue

The latest poll out of California shows that the synergy between the quirky politician and his just-as-quirky electorate may be working again — at the very least, it is far too early to write his political obituary.

I’ve never fully trusted published polls in California, and the Public Policy survey released this week by TPM is no exception, but for the sake of argument (and a column), there are some findings worth noting. According to this survey, Jerry Brown now leads Republican nominee Meg Whitman 46 percent to 40 — outside the margin of error but by no means decisive. Just before the June Republican primary, which Whitman won handily, Brown lead by 12 to 15 points in published polls. In the weeks since, Whitman pulled even and then slightly ahead in publicly released polling. Now, in at least this one survey, Brown has regained the lead.


Another question in this survey may offer some insight into to Brown’s rebound. Californians have become uneasy with the amount of money Whitman is spending to win the governor’s office. Whitman has already spent $90 million from her personal bank accounts to win the primary and to attack Brown — and she’s said using $150 million is not out of the question. She overwhelmed another wealthy challenger, Steve Poizner, in the primary with a negative television blitz, and there was evidence of some backlash to the negative media run by both candidates. (Poizner spent plenty attacking Whitman; she just had deeper pockets.) Negatives for both candidates skyrocketed when the exchange was the hottest, and a plurality of voters at one point said they really didn’t want to vote for either candidate. 

Now, it seems, voters are generally just concerned about how much is being spent. A majority — 52 percent — said there should be a legal limit on the amount a candidate can contribute to and spend on his or her campaign. A similar number, 53 percent, think a “working-class person” has no chance of winning a statewide race in California today. 

While Jerry Brown may not be “working-class,” he is the closest thing to it in this race. In his first two terms as governor in the ’70s he famously drove his own compact car and slept on a futon in a modest apartment to demonstrate that he wasn’t your typical politician. Now, running as a powerful attorney general, he’s making a big show of having a bare-bones campaign staffed largely by volunteers. Although he can be a prodigious fundraiser, it is common knowledge that Whitman has far more money than he has — and Brown takes every opportunity to point that out to voters.

Brown by and large is counting on earned media to deliver his message — media earned by traveling around the state to announce lawsuits against big mortgage lenders and programs to support clean energy, track down sex offenders and promote his role in the capture of the alleged “Grim Sleeper” serial killer — a case that has captured the attention of the public, especially in Southern California. A former governor, presidential candidate and mayor of Oakland, Brown knows how to deliver his message through the mass media as well as any candidate in the country. And it is not as though he doesn’t have paid media support — organized labor is running an aggressive TV campaign against Whitman, figuring they may not always get what they want from the independent Brown, but at least they can have a conversation.

Brown is not running away from his decades in politics — as if he could. Rather, he contrasts his experience with Whitman. “I’ve done this,” he says of his experience running governments. “She ran her … her website.” He also blasts her consultant-controlled campaign, saying all her ideas come from the dozens of high-priced GOP experts on her payroll. (Whitman went so far as to invest $1 million in Republican consultant Mike Murphy’s fledgling independent film company to lure him onboard, where he reportedly is paid in the mid-five figures a month.) 

Brown, who has famously always been his own closest adviser, shows no sign of changing at this stage of his career. He’ll keep on being Jerry Brown and his message will be “you know what you are getting.” California has seen a lot of that over the years, and there is evidence that voters may prefer the battered old Jerry Brown to the sleekly engineered new Meg Whitman.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen. E-mail: ben@gcsa.com