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What to Make of Meg

Meg Whitman, despite (or perhaps because of) spending over $140 million of her own money on the campaign, lost to Jerry Brown in the California gubernatorial contest last night. The margin wasn’t even that close: Whitman won just 41% of the vote. Brown won 54% of the vote. What happened?

As the following graph shows, Whitman was ahead of Brown in the assorted public opinion polls in August and September. In September, however, Whitman’s support began to fall off dramatically. Why?

One possible explanation is the revelation that Whitman employed an illegal alien for about nine years. Perhaps the news that a candidate who had taken a hard-line stance on employers who hire illegal immigrants had herself employed an illegal immigrant hurt her in the polls. We can write off this explanation, however, because the news broke on Sept. 30, several days after the downward trend in Whitman’s poll numbers began. In the following graph, I’ve added a line for when this story broke to illustrate why this explanation can’t be the cause of Whitman’s loss.

So what else might explain Whitman’s decline? Political science tells us to look at the fundamentals of the election. First, California is, at least in terms of party registration, a heavily Democratic state. Over 44% of the electorate are registered Democrats; just 31% are registered Republicans. Although 20% of the electorate is registered as Decline to State, most of these people have party allegiances. We know that the number one influence on a person’s vote choice is their party affiliation. So in order for Whitman to win, she would have had to convince a lot of Democrats to vote Republican–something that is not very likely.

Second, the sitting Governor (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is a Republican. Political science has demonstrated that voters hold the party of the executive responsible for whatever is going right or wrong. Most people think there is a lot wrong with the state of California, and no matter how much the Democrats and Republicans share responsibility for this fact, voters are more likely to punish a Republican running for governor than they are to punish a Democrat.

Political science also tells us that many voters do not start paying attention to an election until it is almost upon them. Despite Whitman’s heavy spending on television and radio ads throughout the state, many voters simply had not begun to pay attention to the gubernatorial race until September. Once they did, the above considerations began to kick in and Whitman’s support began to decline.

Thus, despite a very good year for Republicans nationally, Meg Whitman faced a tough battle to win in California–a battle that she lost.

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