Is Meg Whitman Spending Her Way To Defeat?

Meg Whitman, the former eBay CEO and now Republican nominee for governor of California, has set the record as the biggest self-financing candidate of all time — but at the same time, she’s losing in all the recent polls against Democratic state Attorney General Jerry Brown, after having previously led for some time. Has she spent too much? It sure seems like it. And things have really started to go wrong for her.

As of now, Brown leads in the TPM Poll Average by a margin of 45.9%-44.4%.

In mid-September, Whitman officially broke the all-time record to become the biggest self-financing candidate in American history, at $119 million of her own money being put into the race. And as of now, the total expenditures from her campaign have reached $140 million, including both her own money and that of others.

At the same time, Brown’s campaign has spent only $10 million, a pittance compared to Team Whitman. And it turns out that they’ve also stockpiled $22.5 million for the home stretch of the campaign — which will probably be less than what Whitman spends in the same time period, but certainly enough to get his message across and remind voters that he exists.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.

But now things are quite different. In more recent polls, Brown leads by five points in Rasmussen polling, leads by four points in SurveyUSA, and nine points 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.