Meg Whitman Copies ‘Obama Playbook’ In Pursuit Of Her California Dreams

July 8, 2010 2:08 a.m.

It was only a matter of time before Republican candidates took a hard look at Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign strategy and decided to make it their own. A few have dabbled in Obama-like Web sites, campaign texting and classifying t-shirts as contributions, but it’s billionaire Meg Whitman who is trying to copy piece after piece of the 2008 campaign and make the Obama Playbook her own.

Whitman, a former eBay executive, is pulling out all the fancy “change” messages — and campaign tactics — as she battles Attorney General Jerry Brown (D) for the governor’s mansion. Whether this strategy can work in a state that’s stayed solid blue for presidential elections — but which has twice elected Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger — is a very open question. But the race is all tied up, according to a new poll out yesterday.

The Democratic take on Whitman being a 2010 version of Barack Obama? “In her dreams,” they say. And of course, much of Obama’s success had to do with the candidate’s own popularity and appeal. Obama was a young, African-American senator who represented generational change and used technology to mass finance much of his campaign. Whitman is a middle-aged former tech CEO who’s already self-financed her campaign to the tune of almost $100 million. But plenty of the building blocks and strategies of the Obama ’08 effort can be copied. And Whitman seems to be trying to duplicate pretty much all of them.For instance, TPM has learned exclusively that today Whitman will reveal giant billboards along the highways and ads on the city bus shelters. They will tout her campaign message in Spanish, targeting a key demographic that Obama also aggressively courted in 2008.

Whitman has poured $90 million of her own money into the race, walloping a primary challenger last month thanks in part to her flood of ads on the Golden State airwaves. Her spending is showing no signs of letting up.

Obama pioneered a similar spending spree, taking advantage of opting out of the public campaign finance system to spend hundreds of millions on an iPhone application, a 30-minute infomercial and even putting his image on virtual billboards in video games.

Another example came Tuesday as Whitman launched “Gen-M,” an effort targeting young professionals and students. Anyone remember the poorly named “Generation BO“?

Team Whitman resembles Team McCain, as it’s filled with the same ambitious staffers who watched their guy get pummeled by an Obama operation that made all the right moves. Several Whitman operatives are McCain veterans, or were close watchers of the 2008 campaign after working for one of the many Republican hopefuls who didn’t make it to the nomination.

A Republican operative familiar with the Whitman campaign admits that Obama has inspired many of the technological advances used by the his candidate’s operation. And they’re not just using his voter outreach tactics — they’re also using the same technologies for opposition research, with aides able to edit and upload and blast out unflattering video of Brown within minutes of when it happens.

“Campaigns are much the same as the free market, in the way that people are constantly striving to do them faster and better because there is an objective of achieving your goal,” the operative said. “Smart campaigns like Barack Obama’s and George W. Bush’s reelection campaign in 2004 utilized technology and new techniques to reach the largest amount of voters, and we’ve applied that simple principle.”

The Whitman campaign is using a new technology that allows for personalized auto calls to voters, so when potential voters answer the phone, a pre-recorded Whitman greets them by name, mentions whether they are Democrats, Republicans or independents and provides a tailored message for each group. The operative suggested that Whitman’s campaign could even be a sort of “incubator” for Republican presidential candidates to copy in 2012.

Right before the primary, Team Whitman boasted she had nearly 20,000 voters on hand to make 1 million phone calls. Campaign aides say Whitman gave the state party $250,000 for a massive new voter registration drive, another tactic Obama used in 2008.

McCain veterans learned their lessons from 2008, remembering too well how they watched Obama benefit from months of extra press exposure during the contested primary as their own candidate lollygagged through month after wasted month. Long before the primary was over, Obama framed the race as a contest between himself and McCain while the Republican did little to define his own candidacy. The McCain aides who joined Whitman realized early on they would take the Obama strategy and do the same thing to Brown, who avoided a primary challenge.

Obama aides also sometimes portrayed McCain as a bumbling old man — and Team Whitman has done the same to Brown, 72. (She’s 53.) Consider this ad, Whitman’s first hit against Brown. It starts out showing an old record player and images of Vietnam:

Get the idea?

Campaign operatives who don’t want to speak ill of their former boss privately will admit they learned a lot about what not to do during the Obama-McCain race as they watched Obama clobber their guy. They also spent months watching Team Obama smartly deploying technology to reach more voters and skirting the press filter. Now they’re doing the same thing on Whitman’s behalf. A new system allows the campaign to stream events directly via iPhone video. (Listen to a smart take from a Wired reporter here.)

There are plenty of stark differences. Whitman and Obama couldn’t be farther apart on policy, and Whitman has never held political office. Obama’s strength was in oratory, and he won early in Iowa in part because of his ability to connect with crowds. Whitman struggled when she was caught refusing to take questions from the press and she took heat for over-staging a town hall.

But her team seems to have gotten past those early stumbles, and the Whitman victory rally last month, for example, featured the candidate in front of vibrant, diverse, cheering young people. Brown looked a lot like McCain that night, giving his own speech in a drab ballroom.

“Meg understood what she had to do very early on. I call it bombing the rubble and she is watching the rocks jump up,” said Shawn Steel, an RNC member and former chairman of the California Republican Party.

Steel cited Whitman’s unprecedented spending on Spanish-language television (including heavy advertising during the World Cup games). It’s no secret that Hispanic voters tend to vote for Democrats, but Republicans who have been successful in California and occasionally nationally were boosted by appealing to that key demographic.

“She’s going right into the heart of the community and you watch, it’s going to work,” Steel said. “Our fortunes as a party depend on what she does.”

Late Update: A Chronicle reader sends them a photo of one of Whitman’s billboards, which highlight her opposition to Arizona’s new law.

Masthead Masthead
Editor & Publisher:
Executive Editor:
Managing Editor:
Senior Editor:
Investigations Desk:
Senior Newswriters:
Editor at Large:
General Manager & General Counsel:
Executive Publisher:
Head of Product:
Director of Technology:
Publishing Associate:
Front-End Developer:
Senior Designer: