Television dominates every California political campaign, and this one is certainly no exception, with two wealthy Republican candidates for governor gobbling up television time at a record pace. But there is a parallel campaign going on as well, one being waged mailbox by mailbox and phone by phone.
By the millions of pieces, candidates stuff mailboxes trying both to correct impressions left by television ads and to denigrate their opponents. Usually, mailers employ harsher denunciations than television ads, on the theory that negative visuals can boomerang against the author if voters tire of the mudslinging. With millions of telephone calls, candidates use the same tough tactics to entreat voters to their side.
This year, with the television wars so nasty, there is no discernible difference in tone between the more visible campaign and the under-the-radar one. It's almost all nasty, almost all the time.
There is a goal to all this, and it's not just to finance the U.S. Postal Service. "Election day" is a quaint description of today's reality. Because so many people vote by mail, significant voting began May 10, the first day ballots were released. People can vote until June 8, the day whoever hasn't already voted can cast a ballot at a precinct. We are, therefore, in the heart of the battle.
An interesting complication this year is timing. If polls are to be believed, in the race for governor, Meg Whitman, the former EBay CEO, had a 50-point lead over state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner in March that was whittled down to 9 points by last week. Whitman's campaign disputes the size of the shift, but it is no longer a stretch to imagine that the election could be tight. In blowouts, mail and phone campaigns and efforts to encourage early voters don't matter much. In tight races, everything matters.
In the below-the-radar campaign, as with television, Whitman has come to battle better armed. At least six different advertisements have hit mailboxes, according to those who have seen them. (The campaign declined to confirm numbers other than to say the effort has been "aggressive.")
The intent of Whitman's mailers — to counter Poizner's effective television ads — is evident from the ironic title on one: "You've seen the ads, now get the facts." Despite that pitch, her mailers are shot through with misleading assertions, as have been the television ads aired by both candidates this year.
The fiercest of the mailers, as with the television ads, center on abortion and illegal immigration. Both candidates have taken different positions in the past from the ones they are taking now, which has given each a wealth of ammunition.
"Do you support taxpayer-funded abortions? Liberal Steve Poizner does," says one Whitman mailer.
Yet so does Whitman, or at least she said she did.
"My view is that if we are going to be pro-choice … that it needs to be available to all women, and whether you are rich or poor, you need to be able to access that right," she said last year in an interview with Jon Fleischman, publisher of the conservative blog FlashReport.org. "And it's unfair to women who cannot afford an abortion, and that's why I support public funding."
By this spring, Whitman had adjusted that response. Asked by a voter at a recent event in the City of Industry if she backed taxpayer funding, she replied: "So I am actually not for federal funding of abortion, beyond the Hyde Amendment" — the federal restriction against abortion payments by Medicaid.
"Again, that's another sort of mischaracterization my opponent has done, but I am not for federal funding of abortion beyond the Hyde Amendment," she said. Left unsaid was her support for state funding for abortions.
The fine print of Whitman's ad notes that she opposes "federal" funding, drawing a distinction for herself that she doesn't for him. Poizner once favored taxpayer funding for abortion but now does not, his campaign said.
The candidates have fought angrily over the subject of illegal immigration, and in one of Whitman's mailers she castigates Poizner as favoring "a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants."
"Steve Poizner — that's amnesty!" the mailer says.
For those watching the campaign, her argument is delightful jujitsu. Poizner, after all, used a television ad to show film of Whitman advocating "a path to legalization" — and blasted her as promoting amnesty.
Both, for the record, say they oppose amnesty.
When not going after each other via mail, the candidates have had surrogates lined up to do so through "robocalls" — automated telephone appeals. For Whitman, former Vice President Dick Cheney stepped in to implore voters to cast ballots. Poizner has had conservative firebrand Rep. Tom McClintock call for him, and last week taped a call of his own.
Whitman's organization is widely seen as broader; her campaign says it already has 17,000 volunteers making personal calls to voters.