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Surprising Results from the 2012 Election

The outcome of some ballot initiatives suggests what makes an issue campaign successful (or unsuccessful) even in the unlikeliest of places.
by | December 3, 2012
 

Many of the results on Election Night fit comfortably with expectations about how voters in certain states tend to vote. But the evening also delivered results that were a bit more surprising.

Labor unions, for example, chalked up big wins in deep red Idaho and South Dakota. Voters in fiscally conservative Alabama easily reauthorized funds for environmental protection. Liberal California rejected labeling requirements for genetically modified foods. Oregonians broke with their peers in Washington state and Colorado by rejecting a marijuana-legalization initiative. And voters in North Dakota passed a smoking ban more typical of big cities.

Looking more closely at each of these five examples reveals logical reasons for why voters in these states acted the way they did. Collectively, these examples suggest a few factors that can make an issue campaign successful (or unsuccessful) even in the unlikeliest of places.

Here are brief analyses of what went down on Election Day.

Failure of education reform in Idaho and South Dakota

The education reform movement tried to make headway in two solidly conservative states in 2012, but it ran into trouble amid opposition from teachers' unions.

In South Dakota, teachers' unions managed to secure a popular vote on a law proposed by GOP Gov. Dennis Daugaard and passed by the Legislature that would have established merit bonuses, implemented teacher and principal rating systems, and curbed teacher tenure. By a two-to-one margin, South Dakotans voted to reject the law.

Meanwhile in Idaho, voters weighed a trio of ballot measures that amounted to an even more far-reaching reform agenda. Each sought to overturn a law backed by Republican Gov. Butch Otter and approved by the Legislature in 2011. Collectively, the enacted laws would have shifted control to local officials, curbed tenure and collective bargaining rights, instituted a merit pay system, and spent money on technology and online teaching. Each of these laws was soundly rejected, with between 57 and 67 percent voting against them.

In South Dakota, those opposed to the law tapped into concerns that pitting teachers against each other to claim bonuses would harm the collaborative atmosphere in schools. According to a lobbyist in Pierre, there was also some concern that the new laws might raise costs.

The price tag was an even bigger concern in Idaho, particularly plans to give each high school student a laptop. Union ads depicted kids ruining their state-funded laptops, suggesting costs would rocket out of control.

But the laws were in trouble even before that, sources in the state said, because they were closely tied in the public mind to Tom Luna, the state's elected superintendent of public instruction, who has high negatives with many voters despite his GOP affiliation.

In both states, the opponents' sizable war chests helped stir residents' latent worries about the laws. While New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg gave at least $200,000 to support the Idaho measures, the National Education Association sent $1 million into the state and its state affiliate spent another $280,000. In South Dakota, the NEA gave almost $525,000.

Jason Richwine, a senior policy analyst with the conservative Heritage Foundation, said the challenge in cases such as these is to spread a message that's persuasive enough to overcome voters' deeply ingrained respect for teachers.

"The trouble is that what is rapidly becoming the consensus among reformers is still largely unknown to the public," Richwine said. "Even though states like Idaho and South Dakota may not be friendly to explicit appeals for more union power, citizens there are likely to hold conventional beliefs about education policy -- that more money is always good, that teachers can't be evaluated by a computer and so on. The challenge for reformers is to get the facts about education policy out to the public in a way that can adequately counteract unions' appeal to intuitive-but-wrong ideas about how to reform education."

Failure of a California measure to require the labeling of genetically modified foods

California Proposition 37 would have required labeling food made from genetically modified (GMO) plants or animals and prohibited labeling or advertising such food as "natural."

In liberal, health-obsessed California, a late-September Los Angeles Times poll found Proposition 37 ahead by a two-to-one margin. But just six weeks later, it failed to pass, with 52 percent voting against it.

What happened?

One factor had to do with the measure's seeming inconsistencies, said Garry South, a Democratic consultant in the state. The proposition included multiple exemptions -- food that is certified organic, food that includes GMO material unintentionally, animals raised on GMO feed, food with small amounts of GMO material, meals sold in restaurants and alcoholic beverages.

"It was written to maximize the coalition that would support the initiative, not so that it would make overall sense," South said. Questionable wording and parameters were cited as factors in newspaper endorsements that weighed against the measure, including by the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle.

A concerted and deep-pocketed campaign by the opposition was also a crucial factor in torpedoing the measure. According to California Watch, major food producers spent $44 million on the effort to derail Proposition 37, compared to $7.3 million for the campaign backing the measure. Monsanto, DuPont, PepsiCo, Nestle, ConAgra, Coca-Cola and General Mills were among the companies to fund the opposition, which had a compelling case to offer many voters: "The most effective argument against it is that it would raise food costs, in a state that just experienced its first $5-a-gallon gasoline," South said.

Passage of a measure to ban smoking in North Dakota

Bans on smoking in public places are most closely associated with big cities and their liberal elected officials. Now, thinly populated, conservative North Dakota has made the leap as well.

It passed the Initiated Statutory Measure No. 4 by a two-to-one margin, prohibiting smoking in public places and most places of employment in the state, including certain outdoor areas.

Groundwork laid by a 2008 ballot measure became a major factor in th measure's victory. In 2008, Measure 2 passed with 54 percent of the vote. It established a committee to develop and fund a statewide tobacco prevention and control plan, and it created a tobacco prevention and control trust fund to receive tobacco settlement money.

The infrastructure created by the 2008 measure enabled outreach to North Dakotans on the dangers of smoking, said Donna Thronson, health communications coordinator for the North Dakota Center for Tobacco Prevention and Control Policy, a government entity created by the 2008 measure.

"We reach every local public-health unit in all counties," Thronson said. "Because of this strong outreach, local public-health units are able to organize grassroots coalitions that are really the ones that put forth the initiated measure."

Rudie Martinson, executive director of the North Dakota Hospitality Association, which opposed to the 2012 ballot measure, acknowledged that the legacy of the 2008 measure made this year's proposed ban hard to beat. The "anti-smoking bureaucracy," Martinson said, "gets a great deal of money to push changes like this one."

Simply put, "most people looked at the measure, agreed that smoking was bad, and voted 'yes.'"

Passage of a long-term reauthorization of a land conservation measure in Alabama

In solidly conservative Alabama, voters don't generally like spending money, especially on environmental protection. Yet a measure to do just this passed by a resounding, three-to-one margin on Election Day.

Voters approved a Legislature-referred measure to extend payments to the Forever Wild Land Trust for the next 20 years. The trust, created in 1992, funds the acquisition of land for conservation and recreation by allocating a portion of the investment income from royalties from natural gas companies drilling in state waters. The royalty fund currently holds $2.5 billion in principal; the Forever Wild program takes 10 percent of the annual investment income, up to a maximum of $15 million a year.

Since its creation, the program has enabled more than 227,000 acres to be set aside for recreation areas, nature preserves, state parks and wildlife management areas. Notably, the measure attracted such diverse supporters as the National Rifle Association and the Sierra Club, as well as many business groups and the League of Women Voters.

The fund has made possible "activities ranging from hunting and fishing to bird watching, mountain biking, canoeing and many others," former Republican state Sen. Bradley Byrne, an unsuccessful candidate for governor in 2010, wrote in an op-ed endorsing the measure. Byrne stressed that the program was fiscally responsible, drawing its funds not from taxpayers but from "a depleting natural resource."

Richard Fording, a University of Alabama political scientist, said that both of Byrne's arguments melded nicely for voters in the state.

"The Forever Wild Program does not use money from state tax revenues, so between that and all of the hunting and fishing enthusiasts who support the mission, it passed easily," Fording said.

Failure of marijuana legalization in Oregon

This year's election was a landmark for marijuana legalization efforts. Rather than just managing to pass measures that legalized marijuana for medical purposes, two states -- Colorado and Washington state -- approved measures that effectively decriminalized marijuana for recreational purposes, even for people without a medical justification.

But voters in Oregon -- where the public is considered at least as liberal as voters in Washington state, and more liberal than those in Colorado -- rejected a measure that would have decriminalized marijuana for recreational use. The measure attracted only 47 percent support.

A key difference in the initiatives was that those in Colorado and Washington state were backed by the pro-legalization "establishment" while the Oregon measure was not."Early polling showed little support for full legalization in Oregon, so the big reform money stayed out," said Mike Riggs, who writes about drug policy for Reason, a libertarian magazine. "Overhauling a law requires a campaign strategy and money, and if you don't have the Drug Policy Alliance or the Marijuana Policy Project on your side -- both of which stayed out of Oregon -- you don't have a chance. Those two groups have money and knowledge. They know how to run campaigns and how to sell the issue, and they play a very long game."

Substantively, the Oregon measure was also more far reaching than those in Colorado and Washington state, a fact that likely spooked some voters, observers in the state said.

As ABC News reported, the Colorado and Washington laws empower state boards to license, regulate and tax the commercial marijuana industry. By contrast, Oregon's measure would have had the state buy marijuana from licensed sellers and processors, then package it, label it with a potency grade and sell it to customers for a profit.

Further raising concerns for some voters was the pedigree of the main sponsor of the law, Paul Stanford. He runs the Hemp and Cannabis Foundation, a chain of clinics where doctors write prescriptions for individuals who say they need medical marijuana. Some media reports have raised questions about Stanford's business history, though others applaud his practices. There was also concern that the measure could have increased Stanford's already significant foothold in the state's marijuana market.

Earlier in the year, a second legalization measure in Oregon failed to qualify for the ballot; it had received more mainstream support, including nearly half a million dollars from the Austin-based Foundation for Constitutional Protection. If it had made the ballot, observers say,

it might well have passed muster with voters.

"It's widely expected that a simpler, cleaner measure would be likely to pass in the near future," said David Sarasohn, a political columnist with The Oregonian.

And for Oregon, the "near future" could come as soon as 2014.

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