Whitman previously led in the polls, thanks to a barrage of ads promoting her business acumen in the tough economy. But more importantly, she had a lot more ads attacking Brown -- whose long career in politics, including eight years as governor from 1975-1983; three campaigns for president; one campaign for Senate; serving as mayor of Oakland and then as state attorney general -- might not be the best for this year's anti-establishment environment. For example, one Whitman ad said Brown had "a lifetime in politics, a legacy of failure," and another dug up old video from 1992, of Bill Clinton slamming Brown during a presidential primary debate. The latter spot sent at least two messages -- not just that the popular Bill Clinton had attacked Brown, but also that Brown had been around politics for so long.
All of this helped pay off in the polls. In polls ranging from August and September, Whitman had an eight-point lead in Rasmussen polling, a seven-point lead in SurveyUSA polling, and a two-point lead in CNN/Time polling.
And take a look at the TPM Poll Average of Whitman's favorable and unfavorable rating -- the longer the race has gone on, her favorable rating has only gone down, while her unfavorable rating has gone way up:
A survey back in July from Public Policy Polling (D) hinted that Whitman's self-financing could lead to problems down the road. The poll asked: "Do you think there should be a legal limit on how much money a candidate can donate to his or her own campaign?" The answer was 52% yes, 33% no. (Note: Such a limitation has been found unconstitutional in Supreme Court cases such as Buckley v. Valeo in 1976. But this poll number does point to a remedy to the underlying problem being available at the ballot box, if the people sufficiently resent it.)
And Whitman has herself had to address the spending issue in the campaign, such as at a recent debate last week. "I don't think you can buy elections, I think Californians are too smart," Whitman said. "What you can do is get your message out."
Whitman has also had her share of other problems, such as a scandal over having hired an illegal immigrant housekeeper. But the really important thing to keep in mind is that Whitman's decline in the polls -- both in her personal favorability ratings, and in the horse-race -- began significantly before the maid story broke.
An election has many factors, such as campaign spending, key issues, the levels of voter bases getting motivated, scandals, etc. But at the moment, it really is looking like the former eBay CEO could be on her way to posting the highest personal bid of all time for office -- and still losing the auction.