This fall’s clash on a food-labeling initiative will be Washington’s latest mega-money campaign on a statewide ballot measure.
Those dueling on Initiative 522 are building up their cash and will almost certainly eclipse $10 million in combined spending by November.
In the last three years, sponsors of initiatives to legalize charter schools and gay marriage and privatize the sale of hard liquor spent more than $11 million apiece to pass their measures. And foes of a soda tax succeeded in getting it repealed after a $16 million effort.
The upward trend in spending is probably here to stay, especially when significant social questions are being decided.
“Truly grassroots initiative campaigns, launched by ordinary people who are concerned about an issue, can spend less and still win,” said Travis Ridout, an associate professor of political science at Washington State University. “But in order to get people to care about something they’ve never thought about before, it will take several million dollars — most of that going toward television advertising.”
Of late it seems that the more one spends, the better the chance of winning.
“With an initiative campaign, it takes a lot of money to introduce and frame the issues, and so the side with more money has a better chance of winning, though certainly does not always win,” he said
No simple formula
Sometimes several million dollars is just not enough. Ask Costco.
In 2010, the Issaquah-based firm pushed a liquor privatization initiative and covered $5 million of the campaign’s $6 million cost. Opponents counterattacked with $9.2 million and defeated the measure.
Costco returned the next year with a vengeance. It dumped $20.1 million into the campaign for Initiative 1183 and won, overcoming the $12.4 million spent by the opposition. That ranks as the most expensive initiative fight since the state started requiring public disclosure of campaign spending in 1973.
“It’s naive to think money doesn’t matter,” said Sandeep Kaushik of Seattle, who’s consulted on several initiative campaigns. “But by itself it’s not enough. You still need a good message and organization.”
There is no simple formula for assuring a favorable outcome. But Kaushik knows firsthand that if one side spends a bunch of money and the other does not, it can turn out badly.
When the Legislature hiked the pop tax by 2 cents on every 12-ounce can, the beverage industry wanted to repeal it out of concern that other states would emulate Washington.
The American Beverage Association paid most of the $16 million tab to first qualify the referendum, then to conduct the airwave war against the increase. Supporters of the tax, for whom Kaushik worked, had only $426,000.
Polling found the electorate evenly divided on the tax until the onslaught of television commercials started.
“We had no money to get our message out and counter their ads. They went from a dead-heat race to winning in a landslide,” Kaushik said.
Todd Donovan, a political science professor at Western Washington University, said research shows spending in that fashion does affect vote results.
“Some people think it’s particularly effective on the ‘no’ side, because it might be easier to get people to protect a status quo they know than to accept some uncertain change,” he said.
Gobs of money for tons of advertising are not always needed to win.
Consider initiative promoter Tim Eyman of Mukilteo, whose ballot successes have made him one of the most powerful provocateurs in state politics. Eyman does raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay signature-gatherers to qualify his anti-tax measures, but doesn’t usually spend a dime on campaign mailers and ads.
“When someone gets something relatively popular or banal qualified for the ballot (certain tax cuts, performance audits, top two, term limits), voters don’t need much convincing,” Donovan said.
Look to California
What can Washington expect in this fall’s campaign on I-522, which would require labels on food products that are genetically engineered or contain genetically engineered ingredients?
Probably a slimmed-down version of what transpired in California in 2012, when a donnybrook broke out on Proposition 37 to impose similar food-labeling rules. Voters narrowly rejected that measure in a campaign that saw opponents outspend supporters $46 million to $9 million.
From the outset, those pushing I-522 said they anticipate that big checks will come in against them from companies like Monsanto, which gave more than $8 million to defeat the California proposition.
That’s why they focused on raising money early and building field operations throughout the state.
As of this week, the Yes on I-522 Committee had raised nearly $2.5 million, according to the state Public Disclosure Commission. Six other political committees backing the initiative have pulled in another $1 million, though half of that was spent getting the signatures to reach the ballot. Opponents had raised $951,000 as of this week, with a quarter of the total coming from Monsanto.
“California was a frustrating fight. As a movement, we learned a lot,” said David Bronner, president of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps.
The organic soap company has contributed $700,000 to back the initiative, which is roughly $150,000 more than it gave to the Prop. 37 campaign. And starting next month, labels urging support of the measure will be placed on eight soap fragrances sold in Washington.
“They basically had a megaphone with $40 million in ads and we couldn’t respond with advertising until the final days,” Bronner said. “We need to be going up against them toe-to-toe.”
Ridout and Donovan each said they didn’t follow the California fight closely but would anticipate that corporations that plied the winning side with lots of dough will do it again.
“In this instance, it seems that the supporters have less potential money behind it than opponents,” Ridout said. “And so if the food industry decides they want to stop this, they could probably open up their checkbooks and make it happen. But it would take several million dollars to do so.”
Donovan suggested a parallel to what occurred on the soda tax may unfold.
“The Big Food conglomerates, like the beverage industry, don’t want this to spread to other states,” he said. “So they might spend tons to kill it.”