So what happens if the next polls show Steve Poizner has cut deeply into Meg Whitman’s lead, as internal polling appear to be showing?
Whitman’s campaign is likely to dismiss it as something they expected all along. No way could they have sustained their 50 percentage-point edge. To its credit, Whitman’s team has publicly treated poll numbers with caution all along, consistently downplaying the large margins.
But all the hallmarks of supreme confidence — basically ignoring Poizner’s calls for debates, showing few signs of angst over refusing to engage with the state’s political press — show they’ve been bolstered, to put it diplomatically, by their poll numbers.
If, however, the next Field poll and Public Policy Institute of California survey reflect internal polling and indicate a significant shift — say, cutting Whitman’s 50 percentage margin to 20 or 25 — would it be incorrect to say the dynamics of the Republican primary have altered enough to take a second look at the competitiveness of the race?
Poizner’s team would be at least somewhat justified if it demanded a new look. A precipitous drop is, after all, precisely what they have been predicting all along.
Poizner’s team has paid the price for laying low: having to watch helplessly as top supporters defected to Whitman, withstanding ridicule among the punditocracy, and, until recently, the indignity of being ignored by Whitman.
Up until now, its strategy of holding fire until the final two months of the campaign, of waiting to strike with heavy ad buys only when it deemed voters were paying attention, has been seen as disastrous. Poizner’s obituary has been written many times — even as recently as today by the Wall Street Journal; his game plan mocked as the blueprint of a wrong-headed strategy, especially when employed against a juggernaut political machine of a billionaire.
What does it say, now, however, if Whitman’s lead has shrunk by 10, 15, or 20 points? That her lead was thin in the first place? That her large lead meant only that people were seeing her face more on TV? That there was no real substantive connection between Meg and Republican voters, no real loyalty of any depth?
If her support was just inch-deep, should she have been given all the political accoutrements of a front-runner all these months? Should she have been able to wrap herself in an impetentrable shield that is usually accorded a popular incumbent, rather than a first-time candidate who had to prove herself by facing up to tough questions and vigorous opposition?
Maybe she was within rights — 50 points is 50 points, no matter how thin — to take the front-runner’s lap, a luxurious waltz down the gilded path. But now that Poizner might be showing some signs of life, and Republican voters appear ready to take a closer look — you can thank Poizner’s most recent ads roughing up Whitman on immigration and her previous support for liberal U.S. Sen Barbara Boxer for jolting GOPers out of their stupor — maybe the media will clear its jaundiced eye and begin to take the race seriously.
And perhaps Whitman will actually engage Poizner. The first signs of vulnerability appeared when she went after Poizner with her own attack ads harkening back to his support for Al Gore in the 2000 presidential race.
Who knows? If her internal polls start showing further shrinkage — it will probably take a second poll cycle to solidify the perception of a shift — maybe it will be Whitman calling for an extra debate or two. Perhaps, there could be an invite to Jerry Brown, for that stunt three-way, in the offing. Precipitous drops have a way of humbling candidates — perhaps even billionaire ex-CEOs.