Phil, The Unlovable Loser

By Garry South

November 8, 2006

Do voters have to love you to elect you? That’s a question all political candidates and strategists ponder from time to time. Tuesday’s debacle in the California governor’s race provides some food for thought on this count.

In elections for high executive office such as president and governor, most voters don’t choose based on who’s got the best 37-point plan on education or transportation. They certainly don’t always go for the smartest candidate or the most articulate.

Rather, their vote is a very personal and very visceral one. As a political strategist who has studied voter behavior over three decades, I’ve learned that consciously or otherwise, they ask themselves: Do I like this candidate? Do I trust him? Can he relate to someone like me? And perhaps most important: Do I want him in my face for the next four years, or the other guy?

Phil Angelides’ landslide loss is proof he didn’t meet these tests. Admittedly, he was up against an opponent who, like the avuncular, self-effacing, wisecracking Ronald Reagan, has proved to be certifiably likable to a majority of Californians.

But Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had chinks in his armor, as the 2005 special election proved. And recent history in California shows that you don’t have to be a former movie star to be elected governor. After all, George Deukmejian, Pete Wilson and Gray Davis were bland, middle-aged white males no one would have accused of being charismatic or warm and fuzzy. Yet all three were elected and reelected, each of them scoring an overwhelming landslide in the process (Deukmejian in 1986, Wilson in ’94 and Davis in ’98).

Over the course of a long campaign, Angelides just didn’t warm the cockles of California voters’ hearts. He never did much to introduce himself in the first place. In general, the proud Harvard graduate came across as the Smartest Guy in the Room, given to lecturing voters instead of conversing with them and providing them with a staccato recitation of statistics rather than making an emotional connection.

But that shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone. This is a candidate with a long history of hard-to-like behavior.

Take his low-blow political style. Even though negative campaigning often works, in Angelides’ case it also seemed to reflect his basic personality type. He once referred to Reagan as a racist. As chairman of the California Democratic Party, Angelides compared Gov. Wilson to David Duke, a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Last fall, when Schwarzenegger vetoed a same-sex marriage bill, Angelides put out a press release equating the governor to hard-core Southern segregationists George Wallace and Strom Thurmond.

Angelides’ name-calling and vitriol hasn’t been limited just to those in the other party. He once famously called Democratic U.S. senators “wimps.” In the 1994 Democratic primary for treasurer, Angelides ran widely condemned ads outrageously accusing his opponent, state Senate President Pro Tem David Roberti, of approving the murder of abortion doctors. In the final debate in the primary this year, Angelides likened his opponent, state Controller Steve Westly (for whom I was senior advisor), a 25-year Democratic activist, to Richard Nixon, Tom DeLay, Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh — and asked Westly whether he wasn’t running in the wrong party primary.

Even when Angelides should have been at his best, he couldn’t quite pull it off. In the only debate between the governor and his challenger, televised statewide, Schwarzenegger threw Angelides a softball, asking him about the “funniest moment” in the latter’s campaign. The question obviously flummoxed Angelides. He drew a blank, and then began yammering about how his daughters made him laugh. But he seemed stiff and prickly and without enough of a sense of humor to appreciate the theater of the absurd of campaigning.

Then, in Los Angeles, when Angelides accepted the long-delayed endorsement of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, came maybe his worst moment. While he was at the podium, a girl on the stage with other students collapsed and fell to the floor. Angelides froze, then just kept mechanically orating. Meanwhile, the nimble Villaraigosa scooped up the girl and carried her off the stage, taking off his suit coat and placing it under her head. This clip was played over and over on Los Angeles television — and the contrast could not have been lost on voters. The Los Angeles Times website headline said it all: “Mayor Seizes the Day — From Angelides.”

History proves that you don’t have to be Miss Congeniality to be elected governor of California. But there has to be something about you voters can take to, can identify with and feel good about. We Democrats must come to grips with the fact that Angelides failed so miserably to connect.