May 22, 2005
Californians have been bombarded by millions of dollars' worth of political TV commercials all year, and it's not even an election year - not yet, anyway.
Much of the frenzy is driven by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's threat to call a special election this fall. But there have also been volleys between the governor and public employee unions over policy.
In addition, national groups are flooding the airwaves in an effort to drive the debate over Social Security and President Bush's judicial appointments.
"Can you imagine what it's going to be like over the summer if he does call a special?" said Barbara O'Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at California State University Sacramento. "People are going to be throwing their television sets out their windows."
Schwarzenegger announced an ambitious, if shifting, "reform agenda" in his January State of the State address and has threatened to call a special election if the Legislature does not act on his proposals to overhaul state spending, public pensions, teacher pay and drawing of congressional and legislative districts.
He retreated on pensions last month in the wake of an outcry by police and firefighters over the elimination of death benefits and quietly abandoned a teacher merit pay initiative.
Schwarzenegger now has a slimmed-down ballot agenda of spending controls, redistricting and lengthening the time it would take teachers to earn tenure.
And while Schwarzenegger has yet to call an election - though he flatly said he would last Thursday - his supporters and opponents have been spending freely on TV ads for most of the year just in case.
Not much has gone the way Schwarzenegger planned this year, but he was prescient on one point in his State of the State speech.
"We all know what's going to happen," he said. "The special interests will run TV ads calling me cruel and heartless. They will organize protests out in front of the Capitol, and they will try to say I don't understand the consequences of these decisions."
After months of harshly critical television ads and noisy pro tests outside his events, Schwarzenegger's approval rating has plummeted from a robust 60 percent in January to 40 percent, according to a poll conducted last month by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California.
"We dropped him like a dead bird in the polls. Boom!" declared Rose Ann DeMoro, executive director of the California Nurses Association.
There have been periodic TV advertising battles outside the conventional context of political campaigns over the years.
The California Teachers Association leveled a barrage of negative ads at then-Gov. Pete Wilson over budget cuts in 1992, driving his poll numbers so low that his re-election two years later appeared dicey.
"The public disapproval was driven much more by paid advertising than by news coverage of the budget," recalled Dan Schnur, who was Wilson's communications director.
The next year, Republicans helped sink the Clinton health plan with the groundbreaking campaign featuring "Harry and Louise," an ostensibly average American couple discussing their concerns about government-run health care.
"The Harry and Louise ad campaign set the tone for all of this," said Shanto Iyengar, director of the Political Communication Lab at Stanford University. "It was all a question of a bloated government bureaucracy that would send the cost of health care skyrocketing. They defined the Clinton health care proposals in terms of the standard Republican script of big government."
This year in California, the TV-ad tactic has mushroomed from isolated skirmishes to wall-to-wall commercials, costing about $10 million cumulatively.
"We live in the era of continuous campaigns," Iyengar said.
Schwarzenegger infuriated the California Nurses Association in November when he lifted a hospital staffing requirement and the California Teachers Association in January when he failed to add $2 billion in unexpected revenue to education funding as promised.
Both responded with ads bashing the governor for his actions. Unions representing police officers and firefighters joined the fray when Attorney General Bill Lockyer determined that the since-scuttled pension initiative would cut death and disability benefits.
"We've never had anything like this," O'Connor said. "We're talking in excess of a $10 million buy collectively with no election. These dueling ads from the teachers and these dueling ads from the unions, the average voter is going, 'Why are we watching these?' "
Schwarzenegger's opponents maintain that he set the tone by branding his critics, especially public employees unions, as "special interests" and by barging ahead with his ballot measure drives without dealing seriously with the Legislature.
"I don't think any of us were planning on spending the year on TV, but once the governor decided that he knew better than all of us and he had no interest in actually dealing with the Legislature, we're just using the same techniques that he is," said Democratic political consultant Gale Kaufman, who is directing the union-backed campaign against Schwarzenegger's agenda.
"I think the governor assumed he'd have the floor to himself, and that just wasn't a smart strategy for them," she said.
While Democrats are giddy that they have the celebrity Republican governor on the run, the Schwarzenegger camp professes to be unconcerned.
"I am not worried," Mike Murphy, Schwarzenegger's chief political advisers told reporters in Sacramento last week. "The governor knew well when he went into this thing ... special interests will attack you and it will affect your numbers. But your numbers come back."
He insisted that Schwarzenegger is just beginning to fight back.
"It's one of those things where they have been scoring against an opponent who hasn't tried to score yet, and they think they are Babe Ruth," Murphy said.
Nobody counts Schwarzenegger out should he call a special election or in next year's re-election campaign should he decide to run.
But it's difficult to imagine his popularity returning to the stratospheric levels it reached after he ousted Democratic Gov. Gray Davis in the 2003 recall election.
"People voted for him with the hope that he would be different, and these ads and the countercharges play into the fact that it's same-old, same-old," O'Connor said. "There was a real sense of hopefulness after Arnold's election, and that has dissipated. The acrimony up here and the gridlock is as bad as anything I can recall."