Campaign Check: The Final Analysis

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KQED/John Myers

The long, ugly, and unbelievably expensive race for governor is almost over. And now, the tough question: have the voters really learned what they need to know to make an informed choice?

Our final Campaign Check segment on this weekend's newsmagazine edition of The California Report takes a look at that issue, as well as one of the most unusual moments you're likely to see in a political campaign.

First that moment, the much-talked about touchy-feely ending to the Arnold, Jerry, & Meg show last week on stage in Santa Monica.

The whole thing, popular as though it might sound, is a pseudo controversy. First of all, as Brown said at the beginning -- unfortunately not seen above (that's a version edited conveniently by the Brown campaign) and was booed for -- 'negative' is, in fact, a subjective term. If a candidate runs a straight comparison ad (I believe in blue shirts, my opponent believes in white) and then, logically, goes on to encourage voters to reject the other guy (My opponent is wrong on that issue)… it's negativity, but with a point. And as it seems to be said again and again, negative ads work. At least, for a while. Voters also often say that a candidate's character matters, too. So where's the appropriate line?

But here's the other part about the Brown-Whitman negative ad debate that should be pointed out: most of the ads that have attacked Meg Whitman have come from outside groups -- mostly public employee labor unions -- and not directly from Brown. Through Friday, state records show that outside groups -- independent of the Brown & Whitman campaigns – have spent $27.1 million on the race for governor. Only $2.5 million dollars of that has been spent in support of Whitman, a huge disparity in independent expenditures. And they've been hard hitting.

The California Correctional Peace Officers Association starting air this ad recently. In truth, it uses quotes attributed to Whitman by her ex-housekeeper that the candidate has denied ever making. It also, not surprisingly, offers no other information about Whitman's campaign -- rather, it's an attack on her character. Fairness will no doubt depend on the viewer.

Of course, even all of that independent money as well as Brown's spending still gets you nowhere near the roughly $180 million dollars spent by the Whitman campaign. But because Brown has run so few of the negative ads, when he pledges to take them down his negative ads, it's an apples-oranges comparison to the Whitman camp.

And speaking of the GOP nominee, she continues to hammer Brown on the air.

Each of those accusations against Brown are hard to prove… but partly because Brown himself has been so vague about his specific positions on some issues. Whitman is basically taking some key supporters of Brown -- not surprisingly, public employee unions -- and superimposing some of their demands (or alleged intentions) onto the Democratic nominee. There's not a single thing in the list rattled off in the ad that there's evidence Brown has actually said he supports. A final critical ad, which is entirely a 1995 video clip of Brown, is another story; the clip in question was deemed fair by an independent journalism truth squad when used in an earlier ad, though the Brown campaign insists it's an example of how the candidate used to like to be provocative while hosting a radio show. That he was.

So at the end of the day, what have we learned in this campaign season about what either Meg Whitman or Jerry Brown would do as governor? Not a lot, it seems. To her credit, Meg Whitman laid out a few proposals first, while Jerry Brown has trickled out some ideas over the last six weeks. But neither candidate has really fleshed out those ideas.

Whitman's plans for improving things seem to hinge on big tax cuts, fewer state workers, substantially less in the way of public employee pensions, and a new focus on rooting out the ever-popular waste fraud, and abuse. Brown's plans focus on forging consensus among warring partisans, green technology, cuts to public employee pensions along the lines of what Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger negotiated this year, and no taxes without a vote of the people.

But as we've discussed over the last few weeks, neither have provided detailed numbers or hard evidence of how these sketched out positions would actually work. The voters have to take a leap of faith.

The electorate, by all accounts, is pretty frustrated and dispirited this year; in the final analysis, it will be interesting to learn not only who they elect on Tuesday, but whether that vote is for someone… or against the other person.

The radio version of this segment is below.

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.

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