LOS ANGELES, CALIF.
October 13, 2008
PROPOSITIONS BOOST ODDS FOR BOTTOM OF GOP TICKET
By JOSHUA SPIVAK
As countless elections have shown, voter turnout can make or break an election. And with John McCain not exactly exciting the Republican Party’s conservative voter base – though his VP selection of Sarah Palin helped a bit — state political leaders throughout the country and in California are ready to use a tried and true method of boosting turnout – having direct votes on hot-button issues. While some of the initiatives are designed to bypass the state legislature and enact a big policy goal, others are used mainly for tactical reasons – what some political scientists have dubbed the “Crypto-Initiative.” And both of these types of initiatives may provide a lifeline for lower level Republican elected officials throughout California and the nation.
Crypto-Initiatives are ballot measures, usually but not always focused on social issues, whose primary goal may well be to energize and increase targeted voter turnout. Surveys have found that these ballot measure boost turnout between 0.5% and 0.7% in a presidential election, and 1.2% to 1.7% in a midterm election. Nobody needs to be reminded that those numbers are enough to decide an election. Two political science professors, Thad Kousser and Matthew McCubbins, who coined the term crypto-initiative, argued that Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign used the “defense of marriage” initiatives in 11 states. The amendment, particularly popular with the social conservative base, may have been a great help for Bush in the key state of Ohio.
This is not to say that the initiatives are simply popularity votes designed for narrow political gain. Some of these proposals can have a tremendous impact on state and local government policy. But they unquestionably have an ancillary benefit, one that can help decide elections.
What’s interesting is not that they can decide a presidential race. It is the impact elsewhere that also deserves attention. For state party leaders, the benefit of increased voter turnout is to help out the bottom of the ticket. This is especially true in some effectively one-party presidential states like California, where the electoral college vote is all but decided and there is a great need to give the party faithful another reason to come to the polls. The initiatives and crypto-initiatives serve that role. In fact, the Defense of Marriage Act is credited by some with pushing floundering Kentucky Senator Jim Bunning to victory in 2004.
This year’s ballots are already boosting constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage in the key state of Florida and Arizona, as well as Proposition 8 in California. There are also initiatives proposing either limitations or parental notification on abortion in the battleground state of Colorado and South Dakota. California’s Proposition 4 deals with exactly this issue. Additionally, a number of states will be casting ballots on big tax cutting proposals, such as Oregon’s move to make the entire federal income tax deductible on their state taxes, Massachusetts’s attempt to ban a state income tax entirely or a cap on property taxes in Nevada. Whatever the merits and seriousness of any of these proposals, they all will help in bringing up voter turnout.
In California, the defense of marriage ban could prove very useful to the Republican minority. This is a dispiriting year for California Republicans. Thanks to the Electoral College and the state’s large Democratic majority, California’s vote in the presidential race was decided long ago. In fact, if the Democrats did not easily take California, they would almost certainly be blown out throughout the country.
But Proposition 4 and 8 could help bring out this Republican base. Their votes may not make enough of a dent in the state-wide vote, but they could make a difference in a number of closely divided districts, where turnout can decide the election. Thanks to the initiative process, some of California’s endangered Republican officeholders may make it through.
The initiative process may not change any laws in 2008, but it could prove to be a life saver for the elected officials.
Joshua Spivak, a public relations executive and attorney, is a research fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Center for Government Reform at Wagner College in New York.