Debate season for California’s major political candidates begins Wednesday in Moraga, with a televised U.S. Senate matchup at St. Mary’s College between Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer and Republican Carly Fiorina.
Ordinarily, debates are a chance for office-seekers to outline what they would do if elected. Don’t bet on that this year. So far, it has been far easier to bash the opponent.
With voter frustration – and the state’s 12.3 percent unemployment rate – boiling, candidates are finding it simpler to say what they won’t do instead of what they will. Going negative, in short, chops down an opponent’s poll numbers quicker than going positive builds an office-seeker’s ratings.
Analysts say the negative strategy is unlikely to stop when Fiorina and Boxer tangle for an hour beginning at 7 p.m. Wednesday. Republican Meg Whitman and Democrat Jerry Brown begin a series of three gubernatorial debates starting later in September.
From recent research he’s seen, Democratic pollster Ben Tulchin concluded voters respond more when candidates attack than when they express positive messages.
“(Negativity) is working,” said Tulchin, a San Francisco strategist who is advising San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s campaign for lieutenant governor. “The voters are in such a foul mood that, quite frankly, a negative message is working better than a positive message.”
In her 25-minute speech to the California Republican Party this month, first-time candidate Fiorina mentioned “Barbara Boxer” 21 times. However, she didn’t once mention Hewlett-Packard, the Silicon Valley company where she served as CEO until she was fired in 2005.
That was a slightly slower opponent-name-dropping pace than that set by GOP gubernatorial candidate, and fellow first-time office-seeker, Whitman. Whitman dropped 21 mentions of Democratic opponent Brown in her 20-minute convention speech, with scarcely a shout-out to eBay, which she helmed as CEO for 10 years until 2008. While she has run positive advertisements linked to her eBay tenure, she also has repeatedly pounded Brown in other ads as a “failed” politician.
“Just saying ‘Barbara Boxer’ and ‘Jerry Brown’ is like throwing red meat to the audience at a Republican convention. And it helps because neither (Fiorina nor Whitman) have a long-term relationship with that crowd,” said Adam Probolsky, an Orange County pollster and strategist for Republican candidates.
Plus, with Boxer and Brown being longtime officeholders it stokes “the broad anger toward government that we haven’t seen in a long time,” Probolsky said.
Fiorina repeats Boxer’s name because 52 percent of voters now hold a negative view of the three-term senator, according to a July Field Poll, said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a policy and politics fellow at the University of Southern California – and a veteran observer of California politics.
The nation hasn’t seen this level of voter anger since the Republican congressional takeover in 1994 or the youth-led Democratic Party uprisings in 1968, she said.
But that anger isn’t provoking a substantive discussion of the problems facing California.
Nothing to say
Bebitch Jeffe recently was asked to appear on a panel to discuss the statewide candidates’ positions on issues. “I said, ‘What’s there to say?’ They’re not talking about anything in any detail. They’ll say ‘Read my plan’ online, but even those documents are not very detailed.
“Even if they did express a positive message,” said Bebitch Jeffe, “I don’t think there are many voters who would believe them right now.”
While Brown has rarely mentioned Whitman during the handful of public events he has attended this summer, an independent expenditure campaign funded by several unions has spent $12 million on media advertising over the summer bashing Whitman for her foibles as eBay’s CEO and double-speak on the campaign trail. Independent expenditure campaigns are not legally permitted to coordinate with a candidate’s campaign.
The union-led Working Families 2010 targeted Whitman – instead of expressing positive messages about Brown – because its goal was to keep Whitman from running up a big lead in the polls. The strategy has worked, as the polls have remained tight in the governor’s race.
“Given the amount of resources we had, our research found that was the better route to take,” said Working Families 2010 spokesman Roger Salazar.
And while Boxer studiously avoids saying the words “Carly Fiorina” in her public comments, she makes sure to mention that “she was fired” as Hewlett-Packard CEO. Like Brown, Boxer is getting help from unions and liberal organizations.
Today, liberal filmmaker Robert Greenwald will team with union supporters to premiere a new online video called “Carly Fiorina No Es Mi Amiga,” a dig at Fiorina’s stand on immigration. It pairs Fiorina’s comments on immigration with almost the same language used by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
Negative by association
While Palin may have strong support among conservatives, liberals see her endorsement of Fiorina as a negative in California, Greenwald said.
“We are more in the business of defining what Carly Fiorina is about,” Greenwald said, rather than creating a positive portrait of Boxer.
There is a risk in going too negative. Salazar remembers when he was an adviser to former Gov. Gray Davis‘ 2002 re-election campaign. The tone was so dismal and nasty, he said, that it reduced turnout.
“The problems the state is facing this year are so huge, and the answers so complex,” Salazar said, “that for a lot of candidates, going on the attack is a lot easier than coming up with a solution that the entire state Legislature can agree on.”
The debate between U.S. Senate candidates – incumbent Democrat Barbara Boxer and her challenger, Republican Carly Fiorina.
When: Wednesday, 7 p.m.
Where: St. Mary’s College, Moraga.
Coverage: Broadcast live on KTVU Channel 2 (FOX) and KQED Public Radio (88.5 FM); streamed live at ktvu.com.
Sponsors: KQED, KTVU, The San Francisco Chronicle
E-mail Joe Garofoli at email@example.com.