I-522 backers didn’t learn lesson from California vote

Initiative 522 is failing to pass for more reasons than just the $22 million opponents shelled out to defeat it.

All those bucks certainly made a difference; it was the most money ever spent against an initiative in state history, so far.

Had those pushing the food labeling initiative done a better job seeding their message throughout the state and tilling the fields of voters, they could have harvested victory.

Rather, their pitch for requiring labels on foods with genetically modified ingredients lacked urgency and their campaign inspired little excitement outside Seattle and urban pockets in Western Washington.

At times, it seemed those running the Yes on 522 campaign had not learned many lessons from the defeat of a nearly identical food labeling initiative in California in 2012.

As a result, the ballot measure, which 66 percent of potential voters endorsed in a September Elway Poll, is on track to finish with only 49 percent voting for it.

It is a startling but not shocking collapse of support, said political consultants, pollsters — and a noted chronicler of food labeling battles watching from the sidelines.

“Initiative campaigns are successful when they offer a solution to something the public perceives as a significant problem,” said consultant Sandeep Kaushik, who had a busy fall helping state Sen. Ed Murray’s campaign for Seattle mayor. “I’m not sure this initiative passed that test.”

While the public does see value in labels on food, they were not overwhelmingly worried about the presence of GMOs in what they eat, said Seattle pollster Stuart Elway. That made them persuadable.

Advisers to the No on 522 campaign knew this, too. They took a tack saying that, while there is nothing wrong with labeling food, Initiative 522 wasn’t the right way of doing it.

They cited their reasons — higher costs, new regulations, confusing exemptions — and used gobs of money to make sure everyone in front of a television set in October got a taste. For good measure, they repeated it in a string of mailers sent to the homes of those who always vote.

Of course this is pretty much how it played out in California. This is why those pols not involved in the campaign wonder why initiative supporters weren’t better prepared for the tactics they encountered.

The Yes on 522 campaign lacked a convincing rebuttal on the need for labeling and how it wouldn’t bring a trove of troubles.

Supporters had money. They spent $8 million — an impressive sum and only slightly less than their friends expended in California — yet could not get their response out often enough on television and almost not at all in the mailboxes.

Nor could they turn out their voters. Their plan called for winning at least 60 percent of the votes in King County, to pick up Snohomish County and to do respectably in the rural areas.

They are almost there in the state’s largest county. They barely got there in Snohomish County — 51.4 percent. But they are getting wiped out in the smaller counties of Eastern Washington.

Dan Flynn, a Denver-based writer with Food Safety News, believes rural voters are the reason I-522 went down.

“Indeed, the rural counties of Washington voted just like the rural counties of California did a year ago when they proved key to toppling Proposition 37,” Flynn wrote Sunday online. “When the medicine show behind the Prop. 37 campaign announced it was moving on to Washington state, I remember thinking, “Gee, a state with a larger rural vote than California.”

As of Wednesday morning, I-522 was getting rejected by 82 percent in Garfield County, 79 percent in Adams County, 75 percent in Grant and Franklin counties, 73 percent in Walla Walla County and 72 percent in Yakima County.

Those are impressive numbers, and are as much a reason for why voters put the kibosh on food labeling as the $22 million of opposition spending.

Political reporter Jerry Cornfield’s blog, The Petri Dish, is at www.heraldnet.com. Contact him at 360-352-8623 or jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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