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How Meg Whitman could have won

Critics suggest that former eBay CEO Meg Whitman lost in the race for California governor because she was too aloof and thought she could buy an election. Perhaps, though, she forgot what made eBay successful.

I woke up this morning thinking about Meg Whitman. You see, I'm finding hard to come to terms with the fact that my campaign to become customer of the week at my local Starbucks was successful and Whitman's quest to be governor of the week was not.

Should you have been unaccountably unaccounted for during World Series celebrations, you might have missed that the former eBay CEO failed in her grandiloquent bid to become CEO of California, or whatever they call that position in which everyone who tries fails.

Some have put this abject calamity down to a rather crude attempt at buying an election by spending $140 million. Which seemed a little excessive when her opponent was a man of grandfatherly years and grandmotherly purse.

Naturally, there are those who suggest that her unfortunate attitude toward employing an illegal immigrant in her household didn't exactly endear her to the Latino community. It seemed to reek of a rather imperial lack of benevolence.

The New York Times even suggested that Silicon Valley bigwigs are, because of their excessively analytical bent, hair-raisingly incapable of relating to normal human beings.

And yet Whitman wasn't a typical tech CEO. She had spent considerable parts of her life marketing simple products to real people. Yes, Noxzema skin care, Disney theme stores, and Keds sneakers. The stuff of everyday life. The stuff that satisfies real people's simple needs, however mundane you might think those needs are.

This was not someone who should have appeared so disconnected with those whose votes she needed.

Whitman in the good times. CC White African/Flickr

Not only had Whitman enough experience marketing simple products, she then became president and CEO of eBay. This was a company that gave real people an opportunity to get hold of real things (mostly), for less money, more easily. This was a company that understood that not everyone had money to burn, while everyone was always in need of something. Even a win in an auction.

And that's the best that real people feel they can get in politics. Once, in a while, their vote feels like a win in an auction.

Somehow, Whitman managed to jettison everything she knew about people and put her political fate in the hands of supposed experts who told her she had the buying power to buy power.

What if, instead of going the high-rolling, Big Momma, government-is-a-business route, she had declared at the outset: "Look, I know a lot of you are struggling out there. I know a lot of you don't see much hope. So I'm not going to pound you with tons of ads saying how great a CEO I was. In fact, I'm not going to spend a ton of money on my campaign at all. I know you'd see straight through that. You were all my customers when I was at eBay."

What if she had continued: "Instead, I'm going to go around California in a hybrid SUV and I'm going to meet as many of you as I can and see what I can do to make your lives simpler, easier and more hopeful. If I can put an extra 100 bucks back in your pocket, just like I did at eBay, then that will be a start."

Wouldn't that have made her a little more believable, a little more electable?

It's true that marketing yourself can be far harder than marketing a product whose uses you understand and whose target market you can, in the most basic terms, relate to. And Whitman's advisers are now claiming that California is "a very blue state, and it's getting bluer."

Which, no doubt, explains why a Republican is leading in the race for attorney general, for example.

Did Whitman really believe that she suddenly didn't need to think about what others needed? Or did her very expensive advisers convince her that politics was an entirely different game--something expensive political advisers have a tendency to do?

People are always people, whether they're walking into a Disney Store, buying a face cream, or choosing to vote for a candidate. Meg Whitman chose to believe that the people's only needs were to be told what's best for them. Over and over again.

How quaint in today's rather active, mobile, supposedly empowering digital world.