Whitman's lead drops to single digits

Battered by her GOP rival and Democrats, the candidate for governor loses a 50-point advantage.

May 20, 2010|Cathleen Decker

Meg Whitman, the billionaire Republican candidate for governor, has plunged in polls as rapidly as she once ascended, dropping from a 50-point lead in March to single digits in a poll released Wednesday.

Whitman's rise earlier this year relied largely on a single overwhelming factor -- a personal fortune she has tapped for $68 million so far, allowing her to flood the airwaves for months. But her decline stems from a host of factors, according to political analysts and strategists.

Her opponent Steve Poizner's attack on her as being too liberal on illegal immigration lacked traction for weeks, then found footing with the passage of a tough new Arizona law that Whitman opposed.

The business background that was an early advantage for the former EBay chief turned into a liability with publicity about her ties to a controversial Wall Street firm.

Attacks from both the right, via Poizner, and the left, from Democrats, left Whitman whipsawed. Anti-establishment voters may have taken their angst out on a high-flying frontrunner.

The result: According to a new poll by the Public Policy Institute of California, Whitman's once-massive lead over state Insurance Commissioner Poizner has dwindled to nine points, 38% to 29%. Whitman's support dropped 23 points in two months, the survey showed, while Poizner gained 18 points. Democrat Jerry Brown now narrowly leads Whitman in a general election matchup, a reversal of their standing in March.

With less than three weeks to go before the June 8 primary, the battle between the two free-spending Republican rivals rests on colliding imperatives: Whitman's is to arrest her slide, and Poizner's is to find the path past her that has eluded him thus far.

Almost a third of voters in the new poll said they were undecided, a signature of the race's continuing volatility. "What this suggests is that overall both candidates still have a lot to prove to the core conservative Republican voter," said institute President Mark Baldassare.

What helped bring Whitman to earth, he said, was what vaulted her skyward: money. Except in this case it was Poizner's money -- the $24 million he has put into his campaign.

"Steve Poizner had the resources to tell people that there was an alternative," Baldassare said. "And once people thought there was an alternative, and particularly a conservative alternative, that created a lot of uncertainty about who was going to be in the best position to send a loud and stern message, which voters seem to want to do this year."

Whitman's precipitous fall may look worse than it actually was. Races often tighten as election day nears and more voters begin to pay attention. Whitman's campaign had predicted closure and remains publicly confident that she will be the nominee. "We've always expected that this would be a tighter race," Whitman spokeswoman Sarah Pompei said last week.

Moreover, at the time the institute's March poll showed her lead at 50 points, Whitman had had the airwaves to herself for more than a month, inflating her advantage in a state where so much political information comes through the television.

"Nobody else had positioned themselves as a candidate for governor, so the only choice people thought they had was Meg Whitman," said Darry Sragow, a lawyer and Democratic strategist. "The numbers were not going to be sustained."

The institute's latest poll did not seek to determine why Whitman's numbers have dropped, but those watching the race suggest a confluence of events:

Poizner's campaign began its television ads toward the end of March, casting Whitman as being too liberal on immigration, among other criticisms. The first intimations of Whitman's drop came in a Capitol Weekly poll taken in the middle of April that put her lead over Poizner at 28 points, still a landslide.

Then, on April 16, federal regulators accused Wall Street giant Goldman Sachs of fraud for its handling of tainted mortgage investments. The issue reached into the governor's race because Whitman had a long and continuing relationship with Goldman. During her tenure at EBay, she had been sued by stockholders who said she had given EBay's banking business to Goldman in exchange for beneficial stock offerings. The suit was settled when Whitman returned almost $2 million in profits.

One week later, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed the nation's toughest law against illegal immigration, igniting a national dispute that resonated among conservatives who form the bulk of the Republican primary electorate. When Whitman opposed the bill, Poizner again hammered her in television ads. He and Democrats also aired ads critical of her Goldman ties.

The institute's latest poll shows that Whitman has declined across the board since March. Among non-college graduates, her support fell 29 points; among those making $80,000 per year and more, she dropped 28 points. She fell 20 points among men and 25 points among women.

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