Barbara BoxerCarly Fiorina

CA-Sen: How Barbara Boxer Defeated Carly Fiorina

California U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer and Governor-Elect Jerry Brown, November 2, 2010

One answer: Los Angeles County

Look at the California election map:

And, then the results from Los Angeles County.

Republican Carly Fiorina performed well in many California counties but the almost 600,000 vote deficit in Los Angeles County spelled her doom.

Why?

Demographics for one, since Los Angeles city and its outlying cities have large ethnic Hispanic, Jewish, African American and Asian populations who overwhelmingly register and vote Democratic. President Obama is very popular with these communities and he was very visible in campaigning for the long term incumbent.

Both sides said that in the end, Boxer also got a significant boost from President Obama, who came out to campaign for her and was featured in television and radio ads in the closing weeks of the campaign.

While Obama’s approval ratings have dipped well below 50% in other parts of the country, 54% of voters in California approved of how the president is doing his job.

“In the rest of the country it was 1994 all over again, in California it was 2008 all over again,” said UC San Diego political science professor Thad Kousser. “This is a state where the president still has some support, where it seems like the Democrats turned out in large numbers, and it wasn’t quite the same threatening electoral conditions that we’ve seen elsewhere.”

Also, the number of union member households is especially large – and the LA unions turn out their voters to the polls.

With the sprawling LA landscape, the campaign tool of choice is, of course, television and Barbara Boxer won on that front as well.

They had roared into the fall campaign with a significant financial advantage — allowing them to air television ads for more than a week unchallenged by Fiorina. In mid-September, they launched the first of a series of scorching ads detailing the layoffs and outsourcing during her tenure at HP, as well as the millions of dollars in compensation she received.

Boxer’s campaign manager, Rose Kapolczynski, said at that juncture, many voters still did not know much about Fiorina: “That was an opportunity to define her,” she said.

Within a few weeks, polling showed that Fiorina had slumped by eight points.

Boxer’s pollster Mark Mellman said Fiorina’s business experience initially impressed voters but “when people understood what she really did at HP, it was devastating to her.”

“If there is a mortal sin in this economy, it is exporting jobs,” he said.

And, Carly Fiorina never did try to defend her record at HP “on air.” This was a critical mistake and although Fiorina had written a book “Tough Choices” which defended her career and record at HP the ads featuring former laid off and outsourced employees with NO defense were devastating. These ads took the “wind” out of her campaign, especially in TV susceptible Los Angeles. Boxer’s TV and radio ads droned on and on.

When Boxer, right after Labor Day, started to define Fiorina as a greedy, corporate executive who was insensitive to her employees, Fiorina should have fielded her own ads with “real” HP employees and with Californians whose lives were negatively affected by Barbara Boxer policies.

But, Marty Wilson and his staff elected to go in a different direction.

But Fiorina campaign manager Marty Wilson said the campaign decided early on to focus on defining Boxer as an ineffective and partisan incumbent who had been in office too long, to the detriment of Californians. Fiorina’s ads glossed over her corporate record to focus on her pledge to find common ground in Washington.

“We could not win the election if we played on Barbara Boxer’s turf, which would have been to get into a big, long, lengthy discussion about why corporate CEOs have to make the decisions that they make. It was not a winning argument for us,” Wilson said. Neither, however, was the strategy they pursued.

“At the end of the day, the simple answer is we didn’t get enough votes,” Wilson said.

I think Marty ignored a cardinal rule of politics in this case (and I do know Marty and he and I may argue this point – by the way, they know how I feel). When someone hits you with negative ads (especially on California television), you must respond immediately or the voters just might to start to believe them. Obviously, LA County voters did.

The inability of the campaign to respond quickly and respond in kind “on air” in Los Angeles, cost them whatever chance they had to win this race. Independent TV ad expenditures later in the campaign after Fiorina had already been defined as “out for herself” were not heard by the voters.

It was already too late.

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