Over the course of the past 15 months, the reelection campaigns for Rep. Howard Berman and Rep. Brad Sherman have spent a combined $9 million trying to convince voters in the West San Fernando Valley that one Jewish Democrat is a better Congressman than the other.
But even as the Berman campaign launches its latest attempt to sway voters – a new ad set to appear on cable television using footage of Sherman grabbing and yelling at Berman during a recent debate – and the Sherman campaign unveils its own TV ad hitting Berman for his foreign travel, many voters in the district still don’t seem to know much about either of the candidates.
On Oct. 15, I interviewed 10 people in and around the 30th district who said they were planning to vote in the upcoming election. Of those voters, only two could name the candidates who were running for Congress. Even with all the media coverage this acrimonious Democrat-on-Democrat race has gotten, about half did not seem to be aware that their ballot would feature two people from the same party.
Asked who she’d be voting for in the upcoming Congressional contest, a young woman sitting at a coffee shop in Encino said, “Whoever’s the Democrat.”
That kind of response was typical.
“I don’t like Republicans,” said a man pouring cinnamon into his coffee by the tablespoonful. He, too, hadn’t heard about Berman or Sherman.
A third self-described Democratic voter, after being informed that there were two Democrats running against one another, said, "I don't know anything about that."
Unlike the pollsters behind the recently released surveys – one automated independent poll showed Sherman ahead by 6 points; another internal poll taken for the Sherman campaign showed him leading Berman by 25 points – I talked with people in person, and asked open-ended questions, initially not mentioning either candidate’s name.
The blank stares from self-described likely voters offers insight into the challenge the Berman campaign faces.
Both candidates and their allies are expected to pour money into the district in the weeks before Election Day. Sherman had $1.8 million in cash on hand at the end of September; Berman had $394,000. A Super PAC allied with Berman, the Committee to Elect an Effective Valley Congressman, which had spent almost $1.4 million as of the end of September, is poised to spend a total of $2 million on the race, according to Bill Boyarsky at LAObserved. Two outside groups – one affiliated with the National Association of Realtors, another connected to a group representing carpenters – have spent almost $2 million to advance Sherman’s reelection effort.
Talking to voters in the district, once I did mention the candidates, there was some recognition – but even then, voters couldn’t identify any differences between Berman and Sherman.
“They both seem like they want what’s best for the Valley,” said Suzanne Ledergerber, a Republican who lives in Porter Ranch. She said she had seen a few ads for both candidates. “But I don’t trust any commercials,” she added.
The raw video of the debate -- which only partially demonstrates what I saw at Pierce College -- hadn’t convinced the two partisans I met on Monday. (I wrote about them in this week’s print edition of the JJ.) One was supporting Berman, the other supported Sherman, and neither one felt the video changed anything.
Whether Ledergerber and the 20-40 percent of voters in the 30th district who are still uncommitted will trust a Berman ad that calls Sherman “mean” -- or the Sherman ad that features photos of a cutout of Berman in front of tourist sites around the world -- remains to be seen.