Dead Heat . . . Dead On?
You can’t have a tighter race than California’s gubernatorial contest between Democrat Jerry Brown and Republican Meg Whitman.
This week’s Field Poll has the two tied at 41%, with 18% undecided.
The chattering class is having a field day (pun intended) with the numbers. Among the more popular takes: Whitman’s spent $120 million, but doesn’t have a lead to show for it. Conversely, Brown does not enjoy a vast lead among women voters that California Democrats have come to expect. Women split 41%-41%. Nor does Whitman benefit from the usual GOP macho gap — male voters prefer Brown, 41%-40%.
One number that did catch my attention: Whitman has a 3% lead in Los Angeles County. That could be the difference on Election Day.
I wanted to line up these numbers against Field Polls from the same time of the year in previous election years. The problem is: no previous governor’s race seems to quite match up with Brown-Whitman.
2006, 2002 and 1994 featured an incumbent governor on the ballot. Brown is a former governor and sort of quasi-incumbent, given he’s almost always holding an office come the time of his next run. But it’s not the same as a sitting governor in terms of ready stature and ready-made bully pulpit.
1998 was an open-seat race. However Democrat Gray Davis and Republican Dan Lungren were longtime fixtures in their respective parties. Brown’s also a fixture; Whitman, a first-candidate, isn’t.
Then there’s 1990 and another open-seat contest between Democrat Dianne Feinstein and Republican Pete Wilson. They are, arguably, California’s most respected living politicians. Neither Brown nor Whitman gets much media love for their contrasting approaches to this election (Meg’s somber; Jerry’s somnolent).
A Field survey released Sept. 27, 2006, had Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger ahead of Democrat Phil Angelides, 44%-34%, with 15% undecided. The numbers on Election Day: Arnold 55.88%, Angelides 38.91%. The 10% lead swelled to nearly 17%. You can read that as Arnold picking up 4 of 5 undecideds down the home stretch.
There wasn’t a Field survey in September 2002. But I did find a poll by the Public Policy Institute of California, released Sept. 26, 2oo2, that had Gov. Gray Davis ahead of Republican Bill Simon, 40%-32%. Final result: Davis 47.25%, Simon 42.4%. The hypothetical 8% lead played out at a little under 5%. That would suggest the underdog Simon received more undecideds.
And then we have a Field survey, released Oct. 7, 1998, showing Davis leading Lungren, 48%-42%. Final result: Davis 57.97%, Lungren 38.38%. A 6% spread turned out to be a blowout approaching 20%. That would suggest Davis not ran wild among undecideds, but pulled in a few liberal-to-moderate Republicans as well.
Davis ran away with that race because he effectively pinned Lungren into an ideological corner on a host of issues. And he outspent his Republican foe by a little over $5 million. These are two tactics unavailable to Brown; Whitman’s doggedly centrist; the only way she’s outspent is if Brown’s adopted by Bill Gates or Warren Buffett.
Then again, Meg’s not as charismatic as Arnold, nor does Jerry sport a “born to lose” tattoo like Phil Angelides.
Bottom line: let’s see how the first Brown-Whitman debate (three are scheduled) plays out next Tuesday night. With absentee voting starting up, it’s the beginning of getting those 18% undecideds if not off the couch, at least off their perch.