The Meg Whitman Lesson
Money can't buy relatability.
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.
Libby Copeland is a writer in New York and a regular Slate contributor. She was previously a Washington Post reporter and editor for 11 years. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Photograph of Meg Whitman by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images.