California Dumps The Whole Initiative “Slate”:
Will The “Governator” Be Next?
Jay B. Gaskill
November 9, 2005
What really happened in California on November 8th?
The defeat of every voter initiative on the statewide ballot, including some not advocated by Governor Schwarzenegger, should not be explained away as a popular wave of rejection of the governor, of his policy positions, leadership, or of any particular set of policy issues or remedies contained in these measures.
Because almost no one read them.
The cause of defeat was structural. The initiative process floods Californians with booklets containing single spaced pages of impenetrable legislative language almost every time they vote. When a measure is simple and furthers a popular goal neglected by the state’s liberal legislature (think death penalty & three strikes) it almost always succeeds.
But the voters quickly tire of complexity, especially when there is a relentless and well funded media blitz in opposition. [Initiative opponents greatly outspent proponents this time.]
This defeat was the predictable result of three factors:
initiative fatigue media saturation by opponents issue gerrymandering by the proponents, (a major tactical misstep that I explain below).
The Activist Oligarchy
American politics now amounts to the oligarchy of the concerned.
Most voters are fairly indifferent about most issues and most candidates most of the time, so the game goes to the highly motivated, the “concerned” who end up running things by default. It is the self selected “oligarchy” of the highly motivated who get away with running the country because the rest of us are too busy, too indifferent, and too uninformed to stop them.
This is why the major political players are obsessed with “turning out the base” and why most state political parties are run by the ideologically obsessed.
But the problem with this situation is that no single political ideology commands a working majority on an across-the-board set of issues.
When we vote for a candidate, more often than not, we are prioritizing issues in order to “vote for the man // or woman”. For example, Jill may not like McCain’s position on B and F but is happy with A, C and D. Whenever B and F are low priority issues, Jill becomes a McCain voter.
And so it goes.
The geniuses who put together this set of initiatives were relying on entirely erroneous calculations about which set of the ideologically driven would turn out to vote. While most Californians are persuaded that unions should NOT be able to raise partisan political money via union dues so effortlessly, most Californians won’t turn out at all for a non-candidate, off year election.
But the fervent union supporters will on an issue like this and they did.
The Issue Gerrymander
Geographical gerrymandering is the art of drawing electoral boundaries to concentrate the voters who agree with you in a voting district with a minority of those who don’t, and to do this cleverly and over and over again so that you win most of the votes most of the time. Done with sufficient art, gerrymandering can produce a lasting majority of politicians who disagree with a majority of the voters of a whole range of issues but get reelected anyway. [Think death penalty, property tax relief and three strikes.]
The tactical geniuses who assembled November 8th’s defeated slate of initiatives created an unintended gerrymander of a different kind. [The “tactical genius” reference is a simplification, of course, because no one political tactician – genius or otherwise – was in charge of the initiative process, one that by definition remains ultimately within popular control.]
Here’s the problem: Outside of a fairly small group of conservatives who think alike on a wide range of subjects, the popular majorities who might have favored any one or two of the November 8th ballot measures were not the same people. By linking all of them together, the defeat of the “slate” as a whole was virtually ensured.
This was a negative issue gerrymander.
One example: Polling data strongly suggest that most Californians favor parental notification when a child is about to have any significant medical procedure, including an abortion. This majority consists mostly of democrats with a substantial plurality of republicans. If this voting cohort were asked about whether to do away with teacher tenure (no the relevant initiative wasn’t that dramatic, but was perceived as such because of the lopsided add campaign), most would vote no. Tying these issues together ensured the defeat of the otherwise popular parental notification measure.
Implications for the Governor
There is a reason that, in a state that has been dominated by the Democratic Party for an entire generation, every governor since Ronald Reagan (except Gray Davis who was recalled) has been of the opposite party.
Only a candidate for governor can exploit the issues that have popular support statewide but have been buried by the legislature.
Only a human candidate (unlike an initiative) can benefit from a voter’s propensity to prioritize the three of so major issues that trump the rest (like the issues neglected by the legislature) in spite of other disagreements.
For these reasons, the smart money is still on a Schwarzenegger reelection. The real question is whether he will succeed in making headway on the issues neglected by the legislature. If (and when) he and his supporters return to the initiative process for help, the outcome will be governed by the turnout dynamic.
If anyone asks me (and no one has) I’d say use a laser. Target the single most important issue. Generate enthusiasm among its natural supporters and outspend the opponents with a simple, effective message. And be nimble. Hold back a very strong response capacity. If the measure is attacked, be prepared to respond with a completely revised campaign. The game goes to the nimble.
And for anyone who was upset about any one outcome in yesterday’s election, my advice is obvious: Join the oligarchy. It’s a free country….