What Does Meg Whitman's $120 Million Really Buy?

Meg Whitman has spent more running for California governor than Al Gore spent running for President, but is it the money or the message that matters?

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Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times

Republican Nominee Meg Whitman greets potential voters after speaking at Function Drinks, a small start up company in Culver City on September 14, 2010.

Meg Whitman says she's running for governor of California to bring a sense of fiscal responsibility to Sacramento. But Whitman's own campaign isn't exactly what you'd call frugal. The former eBay CEO turned Republican politico has already pumped about $120 million of her estimated $1.3 billion personal fortune into the race. Stop to think about that number: $120 million is enough to buy a half-dozen F-16 fighter jets and about 25 Ferraris—and still grab Christie Brinkley's recently listed $16 million five-bedroom home in the Hamptons. Even in the context of ever ballooning political spending, it's huge money. Throw in the $25 million in donations, and Whitman has spent more than Al Gore's entire 2000 presidential campaign did. She has shattered the previous spending record for a statewide California candidate ($78 million by former Democratic governor Gray Davis in 2002, money raised from thousands of donors). In mid-September, hers became the single most expensive nonpresidential campaign ever, surpassing the $109 million New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg plowed into his 2009 re-election. With the election still a month away, some estimate Whitman could spend another $30 million or more.

Yet despite complaints that Whitman is simply buying the election, she hasn't purchased much of anything yet. She finds herself in a toss-up—at best—with her opponent, attorney general Jerry Brown, whose campaign has spent all of $4 million, or about 3% of Whitman's total. (Brown has raised an additional $30 million.) A recent Field poll placed the two in a tie at 41%. But a new TIME-CNN poll shows Brown with a handy 52-43 lead among likely voters. That would be a pretty meager payoff for Whitman's massive outlay, even in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by about 10 percentage points and Brown is practically a household name, thanks to his four decades in state politics.

Whitman, by contrast, began her race as a complete political unknown. That's why "she has saturated the airwaves," in the words of Henry Brady, dean of the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley. But assuming Whitman's money has bought her a fighting chance, it remains to be seen whether she can close the deal—or whether she will join the long list of failed millionaire (and some billionaire) candidates whose money couldn't buy them political love.

Making Money Talk
Whitman's advisers say her money isn't nearly as important as her message: that California needs to slash state jobs to close its $19.1 billion deficit, lower taxes to spark the local economy and reform the state's education system. Whitman casts herself as an independent above partisan politics. (She is a moderate whose conservative primary rival attacked her as "liberal Meg Whitman.") Brown, Whitman says, is a relic from another era--a Big Government liberal in hock to the state's public-employee unions.

Message is important, but a checkbook sure helps—especially in a state as large and expensive as California. And thus far, Whitman has spent smarter than some other profligate tycoons who notoriously carpet bombed the television airwaves with no clear strategy. As befits a tech CEO, Whitman has spent her money with a savvy that impresses strategists of both parties.

A prime example is her effort to reach out to California's Latino population, estimated at 15% to 20% of the electorate. Faced with long-standing Latino suspicion of California Republicans, Whitman began advertising on Latino television and radio stations months ago. More recently, she has taken the unprecedented step of buying billboards and bus-stop advertisements in Latino communities. ("NO a la Proposición 187 y NO a la Ley de Arizona," one declares—proclaiming Whitman's opposition to Arizona's tough new immigration-enforcement law and to a similar 1994 California ballot measure that was struck down by the courts.) "Republican candidates are never able to communicate to Latino voters because of how expensive it is" to craft a second campaign message in a different language, says Whitman campaign adviser Rob Stutzman. "So Latino voters for the first time are seeing a candidate spend significant resources to talk to them in Spanish-language media."

The targeting gets even more specific than ethnicity. The Whitman campaign uses "microtargeting" software that helps tailor mailings and phone calls to voters on the basis of not just traditional factors like party registration but also polling and purchasable consumer data like magazine subscriptions and car ownership. "If you're a voter in California, it's possible you have received 16 or 17 mailings by this time, all of them highly specific to you, with your name on them, talking about issues they know you care about—not just a generic 'Vote for Meg Whitman.' That's never been done before in California," says Garry South, a Democratic political consultant who ran two winning races for Gray Davis.

Also groundbreaking is a series of interactive television ads Whitman has been airing across the state. During the traditional pitch, a pop-up message appears on viewers' screens urging them to press a button on their remote control if they want a free Whitman bumper sticker. The cable provider passes along the addresses of viewers who play along—which not only gets them a bumper sticker but also adds valuable new entries into the Whitman campaign's voter-turnout database.

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