What does Whitman's spending buy?

Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman delivers a campaign speech to supporters in Los Angeles, Calif.

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal:The governor's race here in California is essentially a dead heat. A poll out this past Friday shows the difference between former eBay CEO Meg Whitman and attorney general Jerry Brown is within the margin of error for that poll -- about 2 percent. That's about the only thing that's even in this race. Whitman, the Republican candidate, has already shelled out almost $100 million -- she's on track to spend the most money ever in a state election campaign. Her opponent, former Democratic governor Jerry Brown, has spent less than a million dollars. So, what is Whitman getting for her money?

April Dembosky reports.


Music from a Meg Whitman ad

April Dembosky: Meg Whitman is everywhere. She's on the web...

Meg Whitman on a Web ad: Hi, I'm Meg Whitman.

She's on the radio...

Whitman radio ad: When Meg Whitman arrived at eBay...

She's on Spanish radio...

Whitman ad on Spanish radio: Cuando Meg Whitman llego a eBay...

And she's all over television -- 16 separate spots and counting.

Whitman TV ad: Putting people back to work would be the most important thing.

According to Whitman's most recent financial disclosure, she's spent about $62 million on media buys. She's paid another $8 million for fliers, mailers and printed materials. And the National Institute on Money in State Politics says nearly 80 percent of Whitman's spending has come from her own personal fortune, estimated in the billions.

That might appeal to voters, because she doesn't have to answer to donors. Professor Thad Kousser studies California elections at the University of California, San Diego.

Thad Kousser: She can be freed from the appearance of corruption that so often drags down candidates. She can say "I'm in nobody's pocket, I'm my own woman, because I'm funding my own campaign."

Kousser says relying on her own bank account frees her from the chore of fundraising. It also allows her to be choosy about her press availability. Instead, she can spend her time crafting and controlling her message. Along with the media buys, she's spent nearly $10 million on campaign consultants and almost $3 million on new high-tech campaign tools. Whitman declined to be interviewed.

Sarah Pompei is a spokeswoman for the campaign.

Sarah Pompei: We're definitely trying to do as much as we can using the latest and greatest technology available.

Whitman headquarters are in a corporate office park in Cupertino, the heart of Silicon Valley. Pompei said Whitman chose the location, in part, to draw on the region's know-how to help develop those high-tech campaign tools. One example, something Pompei calls "interactive cable TV ads." If Whitman's message inspires you, without leaving the couch, you can order a bumper sticker, volunteer for the campaign or...

Pompei: From the push of a button on your remote control, you can actually order a copy of Meg's agenda for creating jobs.

Whitman's also harnessing interactivity on the web. The campaign teamed up with Facebook to launch an ad that popped up on California Facebook pages over five days in July. It asked users to choose their top policy priorities. The campaign billed it as the first-ever "pop-up polling ad," and said more than 20,000 responded. Whitman revealed the results of the poll on a web video.

Whitman on a web video: And creating jobs is your number one priority.

Allan Hoffenblum publishes a guidebook on California elections and has consulted for Republican candidates. He says, so far, Whitman's multi-pronged messaging strategy has worked.

Allan Hoffenblum: I mean, let's be honest, a year ago, nobody in California ever heard of Meg Whitman. Now, she's a household name because of the money that she spent.

Recent polls show Whitman and Brown running neck and neck, and a quarter of voters are still undecided. But Thad Kousser says Whitman runs the risk of overexposure.

Kousser: Spending has diminishing returns. That 185th Meg Whitman commercial is a lot less effective than the second one that people watch. But even more worrisome is that people might resent the fact that you're always on, that you seem to be buying an election.

Kousser says that sentiment is one reason very few self-financed candidates go onto win. But Whitman seems determined to turn that trend on its head. She's expected to spend another $50 million over the final months of the campaign.

In Oakland, Calif., I'm April Dembosky for Marketplace.

Ryssdal: Tomorrow the flip-side of campaign coin: How Democrat Jerry Brown is spending his money. Or, rather, not spending it.

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