Covering the $531,378 a Day Campaign

KQED’s John Myers talks Meg Whitman v. Jerry Brown

On Monday, statewide candidates in California, including gubernatorial candidates Meg Whitman (R) and Jerry Brown (D), filed campaign finance disclosure statements covering the five weeks prior to June 30th. About covering that, the Sacramento Bureau Chief for KQED Public Radio, John Myers, shared this on his “Capital Notes” blog:

While the Whitman camp knew there was no way to avoid the reporters who would write about her big spending effort, they were in no hurry to make the data public, with the 691 page tome arriving electronically on the state’s campaign finance website at 5:04 p.m. Contrast that to the campaign of Jerry Brown, who did everything it could to nudge the press into writing about his campaign finance report — including sending out the data ahead of the formal document in an email at 12:05 p.m.

All of that, no doubt, in anticipation of headlines like these:

Meg Whitman outspends Jerry Brown 86-1, San Jose Mercury News

Meg Whitman’s governor campaign spending nears $100 million, Sacramento Bee

Meg Whitman Shatters Spending Record, Politico

Or inevitable comparisons like this, tweeted by a political writer for MSNBC:

Whitman’s $100 million in campaign spending is greater than the estimated GDP of 8 countries & about equal to that of the Falkland Islands.

Then there was this headline, probably preferred by the Whitman campaign, from the LA Times:

Spending mounts in state races. (Subhed: Whitman’s pace tops half a million a day as Brown benefits from labor union efforts.)

But then, the Times’s lede was more Whitman-spending-centric:

GOP gubernatorial nominee Meg Whitman was spending more each day on her campaign by early summer than her Democratic rival, Jerry Brown, had spent all year, according to disclosure statements filed with the state Monday.

The reports, which cover the candidates’ expenditures in the five-week period ending June 30, show that Whitman spent $19.7 million in that short span, or $531,378 per day — most of it after the June 8 primary election. Brown, who had no major opposition in the primary, has spent $377,000 since the beginning of the year.

Yesterday I spoke to KQED’s Myers about his above blog post, about how he approaches reporting on campaign finance disclosures and, more broadly, about what it’s like to cover a statewide race where the numbers are so enormous.

Myers likens working with California’s campaign finance disclosure system, digesting the documents, to going after “some really great treat to eat that’s wrapped in a wrapping that’s impossible to unwrap sometimes,” in that you have to “wade through a fairly clunky system” to get the data you’re after. (And that’s once the candidates have ceased the foot-dragging and filed the data).

What’s he after, primarily? Myers notes that reporters already had a good handle on how much Whitman and Brown had raised and from whom, since, by California law, candidates must disclose within 24 hours donations of $5,000 or more (which keeps Myers in the habit of scanning disclosures every day or two “to see who’s dumping money on a candidate.”). So, in contrast to, say, the coverage of last month’s federal disclosure reports, where headlines tended to tout fundraising “winners and losers,” the “news” in Monday’s disclosures was how much Whitman (and Brown) had spent—and then “how much is left, to try to understand the size of the campaign and its viability going forward.” Also: “where the candidates spent the money—polling, consultants, ads, novelty things—and with Whitman, looking for how much she spent on private jet service,” which is old hat, Myers says, for those who covered Schwarzenegger (“Arnold spent a lot of money on jet service.”)

Asked how the Whitman and Brown campaigns handle the press, Myers calls accessibility “almost non-existent” with Whitman (although he did get one, pre-primary interview with the “well-coached,” “cautious” Whitman), adding that the Whitman camp is “very good at managing the press” and holding “events that are semi-town-hall-esque where they go to a high-tech startup in the suburbs of Sacramento, fill the audience with employees who ask easy questions, do a quick Q&A with the press after, and leave.”

While Whitman’s is very much a “paid media” campaign, stresses Myers, Brown “doesn’t have that money,” is “more willing to talk to the press,” and is “more comfortable in his own skin doing so because he’s been in politics for forty years.” Myers has had two thirty-minute interviews with Brown (pre-primary), “freewheeling conversations where any question I’d ask him he was willing to engage and answer.”

To Myers’s mind, Whitman “keeps giving us all opportunities” to again write the Wow, Whitman’s a wealthy, heavy-spending candidate story. “The way she has funded her campaign, writing her campaign multiple checks rather than one lump sum, why dribble out the money and generate six separate stories rather than just writing one $40 million check or whatever it’s going to be and suffer one or two days of these stories and move on?” And then, waiting until late Monday to file her disclosure report (maybe, Myers guesses, to avoid making “the lead story on the TV news” Monday night, though he contends that “putting it out so late” merely caused reporters to dwell on it all day Tuesday as well).

As for Brown, his campaign was “touting and loving” his spending numbers, says Myers, sending reporters a press release with the data at noon on Monday. “They knew [Whitman’s spending] number was going to be so big, they wanted to draw that contrast early in the day. ‘Look at us, look how frugal we are, look what an evil behemoth she is.’”

Myers acknowledges that “we’re still very fixated on horse race stuff” but says he plans to “focus on policy as we get closer [to November],” on “how is either one of these people going to resolve the completely dysfunctional mess that is state government in California?” Another focus for Myers is “demystify[ing] the different groups organizing and dumping money into campaigns,” be they gubernatorial or ballot measure. Myers notes that California is sort of a “model for what the federal system is about to experience” since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, in that in California “there are no limits on what outside groups can spend” in state elections. He aims to “pull back the curtain” on these groups, on “who these people are.”

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.