Virtually all the television commercials aired in the last several weeks by and for Phil Angelides, the underdog Democratic candidate for governor, seek to link sitting Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger with the increasingly unpopular President Bush.
Most likely, this will turn out to be a case of barking up the wrong Bush. For if California political history means anything, the commercials just won’t work.
In essence, the current Angelides commercials are reverse endorsement ads. History shows endorsements almost never mean anything in this state. Why, then, would reverse endorsements matter?
One classic example of how endorsements from ultra-popular politicians meant little or nothing: In 1980, when Ronald Reagan carried California with more than 60 percent of the vote and strongly backed anti-tax activist Paul Gann for the U.S. Senate, Democrat Alan Cranston beat Gann by a 58-40 percent margin. Similar results abound.
Now Angelides and the state Democratic Party are betting on an anti-endorsement. Their ad is a loud reminder that Schwarzenegger traveled to Ohio just four days before the 2004 election to proclaim loudly his support for Bush, whose fate was uncertain at the time. Many analysts credited Schwarzenegger for the narrow margin by which Bush won Ohio, whose electoral votes gave him four more years in the White House.
“The bottom line is that we feel it is a strong reminder to voters that Arnold is a partisan Republican, no matter what kind of games he’s playing now,” says Bill Carrick, the veteran Democratic media consultant advising Angelides. “We want to nationalize the race. That’s one key to getting our Democratic base solidified.”
Carrick points to polls that show Bush with just an 8 percent approval rating from California Democrats and only 22 percent among the growing bloc of independent voters in this state.
“Bush is unbelievably unpopular in California and if we can show people that Schwarzenegger is responsible for Bush, we’ll make up ground,” Carrick says.
The problem: Most California voters do not associate Schwarzenegger with Bush. They’ve seen the governor assiduously avoid contact with the president for a year and a half, except when he attended a White House dinner honoring the Special Olympics, founded by his mother-in-law, Eunice Shriver. Even then, Schwarzenegger’s staff did all it could to downplay and even hide the fact of his attendance at any Bush event.
The first measure of the ads linking Schwarzenegger to Bush will come the first time major polling operations take to the field after the ads complete their run, on or about Sept. 23. Carrick notes accurately that the commercials started running the day after polling ended for the Public Policy Institute of California survey, which late last month reported Angelides trailing by 13 points.
And he confides that the one commercial most likely to prove effective against Schwarzenegger will start its run about the time the ads linking Arnold and Bush end theirs.
That ad will focus on the long list of broken Schwarzenegger promises and his myriad flip-flops. Broken promises began with his pledge never to accept campaign donations from special interests, proceeded to his pledge to hire a private investigator to look into his past groping of women and then to his pledge to pay back public schools the next year for money taken from their budgets in 2004.
Flip-flops include inconsistencies on issues from a minimum wage increase, which he first vetoed and then backed, to greenhouse gases, which he fervently vows to fight, while at the same time insisting on an escape clause allowing any governor to suspend greenhouse gas restrictions whenever he feels there’s an emergency.
Those ads will aim to establish in the public mind that Schwarzenegger’s words cannot be trusted, with the hope of turning Republican voters off to him while also galvanizing support for Angelides among Democrats and independents.
The real question about these upcoming ads is whether they will be too little and too late.
Write to political columnist Thomas Elias at firstname.lastname@example.org.