I had just about finished writing this posting about the latest TV spots in the governor’s race (except Perry’s, which I have already written about; see “Rick Perry on Our Schools,” below, posted September 20), when I heard about a brand new poll done by a respected Texas pollster (whom I am not authorized to identify) who does not have a horse in the governor’s race. This was a poll of 1,000 actual voters in at least one of the last three elections (2002 governor’s race, 2004 governor’s race, 2005 constitutional amendment ratification). The interviews were live, not automated. The candidates were identified by affiliation, including “independent.” Some critics would say that party identification tips the scale on behalf of a Republican candidate. The results:

Perry 42%
Strayhorn 19%
Friedman 15%
Bell 11%
Werner 1%
Undecided 13%

This result is similar to a poll–much ridiculed by some commenters on this site, shame on you–taken by Opinion Associates of Austin for the Texas Trial Lawyers Association (see “Trials and Tribulations,” posted on September 9):

Perry 41%
Strayhorn 14%
Friedman 13%
Bell 13%
Undecided: 20%

The current poll was in the field after Friedman came out for legalization of marijuana but before reports of his racial slurs or satire.

Now, let’s rate the TV spots. All four of the gubernatorial candidates have now run multiple TV spots. I haven’t seen any indication that any of these spots have made one whit of difference in the race. There is no buzz about them. Perry’s are technically superior to the others in filming techniques. Kinky’s are the most inscrutable. Bell’s and Strayhorn’s look like rejected projects from a freshman film class.

The Bell Spots (view online: http://www.chrisbell.com/change)

Both are about education. But they lack imagery: no kids, no teachers, no classrooms. They look as if they had been produced on a shoestring budget. The background is a bookshelf filled with lawbooks next to a bare brick wall. The lighting is dim, though Bell’s head is illuminated. Perhaps the effect is supposed to suggest lighting a candle to banish the darkness, but I thought the darkness won. This might as well have been a radio spot. The power of television to link message to image was totally wasted. No school kids, no teachers, nothing but Bell. And, aside from proving to Democrats and uncommitted that he does exist, Bell’s spots are not likely to light a fire under his supporters. He is too stiff and uncomfortable in front of the camera.

This is the text for “Change”:

“I’m Chris Bell, and with a dropout rate near 40%, Texas schools need big changes. We need to prepare our students for greatness, not just for standardized tests. We need to recruit and keep the best teachers, and we need to make sure students take a tough curriculum to get them ready for a lifetime of learning. Our kids should be leading the world, and they’re not going to get there by filling in little ovals all day long. When I’m governor, we’ll have the best schools in the country.”

The message is too diffuse. Bell begins by talking about the dropout rate and then switches to standardized tests. The logical flaw here is that standardized tests are not the reason for the dropout rate. They are diagnostic, not symptomatic. Getting rid of standardized tests will not help reduce the dropout rate. Still, the issue of what Bell calls “high-stakes testing” (though not in this ad) is a good one for a campaign spot. Most teachers and many parents are concerned about whether students are learning how to take tests as opposed to learning how to read, write, and think. But the spot doesn’t work. The message veers off into recruiting and keeping teachers and uses words that are inappropriate to the medium (“curriculum”). It packs no punch. Grade: C minus

The second spot:

“I’m Chris Bell, and we need big changes. That’s why, when I’m governor, I’ll back a new Texas revolution. We can make Texas schools the best in the country if we teach our kids more than how to take standardized tests. We can cure disease by making Texas a leader in stem cell research, and we can keep our kids healthy if we stop cutting children’s health insurance. Then the Texas that’s in our hearts can become the Texas we see around us.”

Bell was onto something here. The “new Texas revolution” could have been the theme for a series of spots. Take stem cells, an issue that cuts strongly against conservative Republicans and Rick Perry. Bell could be for a revolution against politicians who put playing politics ahead of curing disease. The theme could work for any issue. But TV requires focused messages; it accomplishes nothing to toss around issues like horseshoes. Grade: Incomplete

Whether you like Perry or not, take a good look at his spots. Everything is high quality: the lighting, the sound, the imagery, the text, the music. Each spot has a single focus. This is how it’s done in the big leagues. Bell is playing rookie ball.

The Strayhorn spot (view online at http://www.carolestrayhorn.com/)

Like the previous Strayhorn spots, she is standing before a gray background, wearing a dark jacket over a red top. This is a negative spot, the first of many. The text:

“I’d be embarrassed. Our schools still count on funding, but our governor has a $300 million corporate welfare slush fund. That’s not Robin Hood, that’s robbin’ everybody. And it’s wrong. Let’s get rid of our governor’s slush fund, ban all gifts from lobbying, and end the millions of dollars going to DC lobbyists. I want Austin to hear our voices. I’m Carole Keeton Strayhorn, and I want to shake Austin up.”

This is Strayhorn’s best spot so far, but I question whether it is the right way to go after Perry. The Enterprise Fund is inside baseball, something most voters don’t know or care about. And the Texas Enterprise Fund is not a true “slush fund.” It has been appropriated by the Legislature. The governor is not free to shower money on anyone he wants; grants to corporations have to be approved by the speaker and the lieutenant governor. There is a safeguard, insisted upon by Dewhurst, that if a company doesn’t create the promised jobs, it must repay the money. Brad McClellan, Strayhorn’s campaign manager (and son) cited the case of Vought Aircraft, with locations in Dallas and Grand Prairie, which received $35 million and subsequently laid off 600 workers. However, a Dewhurst spokesman told me that, according to the contract, Vought has until December 31, 2009, to create 3,000 jobs. By that time Perry will be running for his fourth term.

Perry’s campaign claims that the grants have created 42,000 jobs, but the way of calculating job-creation numbers is considered by some to be statistical mumbo-jumbo. Among the beneficiaries of the fund have been the new Toyota plant in San Antonio, UT-Dallas, Lockheed Martin, BP, Countrywide Financial, Samsung, and Perry’s alma mater, Texas A&M. (All the press releases from the governor’s office concerning economic development can be found at http://www.governor.state.tx.us/divisions/press/pressreleases/PressRelease.2004-12-14.4857/view.)

This is not the way I would use $300 million to promote economic development. I’d redirect it into higher education, to improve the two flagship universities and the next generation of flagships. That’s $3 billion over ten years. I believe that kind of investment would create more jobs in the long run than giveaway to corporations. If Texas had a great university system, corporations would come here without the taxpayers having to sweeten the pot. Just look at what higher ed did for California. But the Enterprise Fund has helped create jobs. And it is not a true slush fund. Grade: C+

The Friedman spot (view online at http://www.kinkyfriedman.com/multimedia/video/CowboyWay/)

Kinky is dressed in a long-sleeve blue shirt, a dark vest, and a black hat which I take to be a Stetson. Please don’t write to tell me I’m wrong. I grew up in Galveston, a town that is more southern than western, and where nobody would have dreamed of wearing a cowboy hat. He is holding an unwrapped cigar, which he waves and jabs at the camera. When Kinky isn’t on camera, the images are of, first, horses and then dogs. The text:

“Folks, when a cowboy shakes your hand, it’s the law of the land. Cowboy doesn’t talk about education, he teaches it. Cowboy doesn’t talk about religion, he lives it. The other candidates are spending millions on commercials, going after each other like javelinas in heat. But ask any cowboy and he’ll tell you, Money will buy you a fine dog, but only love will make her wag her tail. I’m Kinky Friedman, and that’s why I’m running for governor.”

So, what is this ad trying to tell us? Here are some possibilities:
(1) It’s a negative ad aimed at Rick Perry. It suggests that Perry, who has been known to portray himself in his TV spots as a rugged outdoorsman and whose political base is the religious right, really isn’t what he seems to be.
(2) It’s a positive ad aimed at Kinky’s constituency, the disillusioned majority, conveying that money corrupts and that Kinky, who is running for pure, nonpolitical reasons, is worthy of being their governor.
(3) It’s a desperate effort to soften his image after revelations of his politically incorrect past statements (with more revelations to come).
(4) Kinky is having the time of his life and doesn’t really care what we think.
(5) All of the above
Grade: Pass

Now that I’ve gone through all the spots, what is the state of the governor’s race today?

The Perry campaign remains confident, as he should. At 42% of the vote, he is unbeatable. Although the latest polling shows the governor getting just 56% of Republican votes, Perry strategists believe that Republican voters will come home in the end, and he will wind up with 80% of the R vote. Take this as spin, if you like, but most political pros want to protect their credibility. The Perry folks told me last spring that Perry would end up in the mid- to upper forties and that Bell would finish second, at a time when most Austin insiders thought Strayhorn was Perry’s strongest challenger. The counter argument is that the race doesn’t really start until negative campaigning begins, and that is only now beginning to occur. Perry has high negatives already, and the attacks figure to drive them higher. Another way to look at the race, however, is not that it has just started but that it is close to being over. As of Tuesday, just six weeks remain until election day, just three weeks until early voting starts.

Bell isn’t even attracting the Democratic base in the latest poll. In fact, unknown downballot candidates outpolled Bell. On the positive side, he has gotten an infusion of money from several trial lawyers, but there may not be a second infusion unless polling shows that his message is getting across. Neither Bell’s performance as a candidate nor the content of the spots were good enough to move numbers. Unless Bell can get enough money to stay on television and improve both his message and his delivery, he’ll never get to 30% of the vote, the threshold to be able to mount a real challenge. Democrats are hopeful that demographic change and discontent with the Republican right will produce realignment in older suburbs–north Dallas, west Austin, southwest Houston–just as a realignment of rural Texas occurred in the GOP’s favor during the eighties and nineties. There is some indication that realignment might be happening in several legislative districts, once regarded as safely Republican, that Democrats think they might win. But it is unlikely to occur soon enough to matter in this election cycle.

The Friedman campaign has to be concerned about the effect of his racial slurs/satire. The media smells blood and will publish any derogatory comments that it can document. Each of the other candidates have an incentive to try to torpedo Kinky. Perry wants the Republican vote that Kinky won as the result of his appearance on state senator elect Dan Patrick’s conservative talk show, when he embraced several of Patrick’s issues and even got to the right of Perry on appraisal reform. Strayhorn and Bell are desperate for votes and if Kinky craters, they hope to pick up his anti-Perry voters. But are years-old remarks (which Kinky insists are jokes) enough to chip away at his loyal constituency? Sure, he’ll lose some votes, but my guess is that most Friedman voters are so disgusted with politics that voting for Kinky is something they have been waiting to do for a year or more. They knew he was a pop-off when they decided to be for him in the first place. I don’t think they are going to be dissuaded now.

The Strayhorn camp has always counted on a Friedman collapse as part of its strategy. Another key was for Bell to be so short of money that he would disappear once early voting started, so that the race appeared to be between Perry and Strayhorn. Then the Democrats would see that Strayhorn is the only chance to beat Perry. For that to happen, Strayhorn will have to become a much better candidate than she is today. Her TV spots have no energy. The message always seems to be how sleazy Perry is–the “slush fund” being a case in point. She spends way too much effort on issues the public doesn’t care about. They care about education, insurance rates, utility rates, taxes, the right to have a well built home, and having a governor they can be proud of. They don’t care about slush funds, finger pointing over ethics, or whether she should be listed on the ballot as Grandma.

If this were a two person race with a reasonably competent, reasonably well known Democrat (Sharp, White, Hobby), Perry would lose. If it were a three person race with such a Democrat and Strayhorn, it would be very close. But in a four-person race, Perry looks invulnerable.