Jonathan Cohn

Meg Whitman = Arnold

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With all the talk about nasty or misleading political ads this year, it’s rare to focus on really good, really effective ads. But California gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown has come up with one that is very effective without being nasty.

It features a long series of alternating video clips of current Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Republican nominee Meg Whitman uttering banal outsider-business-executive talking points in identical or near-identical terms.

This approach is effective on three levels. First, the incumbent is very unpopular; the latest Field Poll, in September, gave him a job approval/disapproval rating of 23-68, which is very bad. Republicans don’t like him much more than Democrats, which is one reason why Whitman has largely ignored him.

Second, the ad shows that Whitman’s efforts to display her campaign as a fresh start towards a “New California” (a term also used by the incumbent) represents the same-old, same-old: A wealthy neophyte promising to run the state as a business and touting his/her wealth as a guarantor of independence. Her depiction as echoing Schwarzenegger also reinforces Whitman’s reputation for running a sort of soulless Death Star campaign based on focus-group-tested bromides.

Third, and most importantly, the ad virtually forces viewers to compare the risk they would take in electing the inexperienced Whitman to the realities of the Schwarzenneger years. The first and last clips nicely capture this theme, showing Arnold and eMeg saying: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting [hoping for] a different result,” and, “What’s the worst that can happen?” Thus, the outsider running against the guy who first won statewide office 40 years ago is tied closely to the political status quo in viewers’ minds.

I don’t know if this ad, entitled “Echo,” will have much impact. But it will be in the back of a lot of minds on October 26, when the incumbent governor and both major candidates to replace him make a joint appearance at a “discussion” sponsored by California First Lady Maria Shriver. Team Whitman will have an interesting challenge prepping their candidate to provide not only a sharp contrast to Brown, but to the Governator.

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