George Gorton has a simple formula for how he runs a campaign. If it’s a bad election climate, he runs his campaign on two hard issues (like crime or immigration) and one soft (like education or the environment). If it’s a good year, he runs on two soft issues and one hard. He says the electorate can’t handle more than three issues at a time.
In 1994, when Gov. Pete Wilson was running for reelection, it was a hard year. And Gorton chose immigration, famously tying the governor’s campaign to Proposition 187. Democrats and Republicans alike often blame the proposition, which denied social services to illegal immigrants, for alienating Latinos from the California Republican Party, as well as the party’s overall statewide struggles since.
For his part, Gorton says focus groups proved immigration was by far the No. 1 issue on voters’ minds. After all, it passed and Wilson won. But it would earn Wilson and Gorton the criticism that they stoked racial fears to win an election.
“They appealed to the bad side of most people by reminding them there were some people they didn’t like,” said Bob Mulholland, longtime California Democratic Party campaign advisor.
Finding such a divisive issue to center an election on became a trademark of Republican political campaigns in the three decades that Gorton called consulting a career. But just two years earlier, Gorton strayed away from such a wedge issue.
In Susan Golding’s 1992 run for mayor, the campaign team debated making an opposition to the needle-exchange program an issue in a television ad. Gorton thought the program was an intelligent policy and said the campaign should stay away from it.
“George was not an advocate for exploiting wedge issues,” Shepard said of that campaign, on which they worked together.
Gorton puts a lot of time and work into figuring out how his candidate should respond to their negatives. Throughout each election, he polls for the negatives of each candidate and what response plays best with the public. He tests possible scenarios throughout the election so that he’s always prepared for what could or might happen. He calls it Election Gaming.
“It’s like a war game,” he says.
For Pete Wilson, Gorton knew he would have to somehow reconcile his 1982 Senate vote to cut Social Security. “He did it. There’s nothing he could say about it,” Gorton says. But what Gorton could do about it is find the answer that made Wilson look best in voters’ eyes.
These are the tricks of the trade for a long-time political consultant. But it wasn’t always like this. When Gorton first got into the business three decades ago, his mom had one question for him: What’s a political consultant?
Now, it’s hard to imagine a major political campaign without one.
He always asks for candidates to tell them about the skeletons in their closets. Do they tell him the truth? “No,” he says. “Ninety percent of the time, no.”
One particular candidate’s skeletons, when they came out during an election, shocked Gorton more than any other. “He was a leader in Scientology and did things that could be interpreted as Ponzi schemes,” Gorton says.
One of the more famous skeletons he had to deal with was the Los Angeles Times‘ story that contained allegations that Arnold Schwarzenegger had groped a number of women. The story was published in the run-up to the 2003 election.
But such a revelation was the least of Gorton’s worries with a candidate with a Hollywood past. “Groping a few women is small potatoes,” Gorton says. “I figured that was nothing.”