With just days to go before the election, Meg Whitman was asked whether she planned to keep throwing money into her bid for California governor. She avoided answering the question, but, even at this late date, it is hard to imagine her breaking the habit. Already the billionaire Republican has smashed records by dropping $141 million of her own money in her battle against Jerry Brown, and she’d said previously she was willing to put in as much as $150 million.
What will she get for all that money? An empty phone bank? A piece of Mike Murphy’s soul? If she loses, which polls indicate she will, she will have bought herself a starring role in an American cautionary tale. Whitman was supposed to be a new role model for women in politics, a woman who broke all the boundaries on her own. She was the former CEO of eBay, a leader in an industry dominated by men. Because she was self-financed, “I don’t owe anyone anything,” she likes to say. “I only owe the voters of California.” But in the end it turns out that too much money can turn against a candidate—male or female—and that it does not spare you the burden of having to connect with the voters.
As the New York Times’ Nate Silver has pointed out, self-financed candidates don’t have the best track record for success. There are a number of factors at work, Silver writes, including the fact that many are political newbies and face related problems (poor campaign management, crummy stump style). Also, they may pass the saturation level for advertising, beyond which more ads have a neutral or even detrimental effect. Whitman also has the challenge of being a Republican in a mostly blue state.
But there is something else at work here: For all the money spent, the people of California don’t know who Whitman is. As several California newspapers have pointed out, Whitman’s family has kept a remarkably low profile throughout this campaign, with her neurosurgeon husband granting just one interview, to More magazine. Her sons have been largely absent from the trail. The campaign itself has mostly stuck to ads and tightly controlled events. The Los Angeles Times has described Whitman as “deeply private” and suggested she is “running on resume, not biography, to an extent rarely seen in modern politics.”
As one GOP strategist recently told the Post, “You could hold a gun to my head, and I couldn’t tell you why she’s running for governor. All people know is that this is a very rich person.” The More profile described the candidate this way back in January: “Whitman is hard to know, much less touch. She’s quiet, understated and more wonky than ebullient … unlike Bill Clinton, when she tries to show she feels your pain, she sounds a bit wooden. Forget your pain; she seems at times not even to feel her own.”
Whitman has “failed to connect,” in campaign parlance, failed to demonstrate the warmth or realness or relatability that inspires voters. She is often described as “tough”—not least by herself—but that’s an adjective, not a narrative. She speaks often of her abilities as a businesswoman, but it may be that what a businesswoman needs to motivate employees who already work for her is not akin to what a candidate needs to inspire voters to the booth. In the absence of a story, what’s defined Whitman have been unsavory revelations—the scandals involving her illegal immigrant housekeeper, who claims she was treated poorly when she was fired and who Whitman now says should be deported; her failure to vote for many years; and (thin) allegations of misconduct by one of her two sons. A dominant theme of the campaign has been anger over a soured economy that, whatever the rhetoric, nobody (not Jerry Brown, not Meg Whitman, not Barack Obama) will be able to fix in the short-term. But anger is not enough; voters are inspired to the polls because they buy into a dream, whether it’s the Tea Party’s promise of return to a mythical, simpler past, or a desire, as Matt Bai has suggested, to return power to old-school politicians (like Brown) who were last in charge with the country’s outlook was rosier.
As the Washington Post reported, Whitman has been running more than 1,300 TV ads a day, not just in English and Spanish but in Mandarin and Cantonese. She has phone bankers who speak Farsi. She has used “state-of-the-art microtargeting software” to locate potential supporters, slicing and dicing the California electorate not just by characteristics like income and ethnicity, but by the cars they own and magazines they buy. Recently, Whitman was booed by a room of women for refusing to meet Matt Lauer’s challenge to take down all her negative ads. Over the weekend Whitman launched a new ad, in what was widely described as an attempt to “reintroduce” herself. Reintroduce herself—days before the election! In the ad, Whitman invokes the perception among California voters that the election is “an unhappy choice” between herself, a rich newbie to politics, and Brown, a longtime pol “with no plan for the future.”
“Well, let me tell you my story,” Whitman says, looking into the camera. Then she proceeds to tell very little of it. “My husband and I came here as newlyweds. We raised our family here. And the California dream came true for me in ways I could never have imagined.” Old family photos flash across the screen—and that’s about as personal as it gets. This is the definition of too little, too late.
In a recent interview with Diane Sawyer, Whitman spoke about her mom, who died earlier this year. “What she taught me was that the price of doing nothing is far greater than the cost of making a mistake,” Whitman said, reprising one of her favorite mantras. They’d been discussing how the campaign was going, and it was hard not to wonder what the candidate meant by that phrase, “the cost of making a mistake.” If Whitman doesn’t win, how will she look back on this election? As just one long, really expensive whoops?
Perhaps a loss will reinforce a lesson she’s learned before. In her book, The Power of Many, Whitman writes, “Giving any team unlimited time or resources to do anything rarely produces the desired results. … Limits focus us.” Would that she had adopted that spirit throughout the campaign. It may be that Meg Whitman didn’t need to spend all those millions. What she needed was just more Meg Whitman.