How to overcome a well-funded opponent by building a coalition with the right message
Consultant Case Study
Proposition 5 on the November 2008 California ballot looked a lot like its cousin on the 2000 ballot, Proposition 36. Both were purportedly aimed at substituting and improving treatment for nonviolent drug offenders as an alternative to sending them to prison. Both were backed by well-funded initiative campaigns—Proposition 5 was backed by George Soros—and both started out with huge leads in the polls.
Both initiatives were also initially opposed by the usual suspects: underfunded law enforcement groups and their public safety allies.
In 2000, Proposition 36 coasted to an easy 60.9 per- cent victory, but because the “No on 5” campaign built a coalition of unusual suspects, 2008 would turn out differently. When opponents of Proposition 5 first gathered on June 30, 2008, however, it appeared that Proposition 5 would be a replay. This first organizational meeting was occurring only eight days before proponents and opponents had to submit their pro and con ballot statements to appear in the state voter pamphlet.
Veteran law enforcement advocate John Lovell called the initial group together and would serve as chair of the campaign. Tim Rosales and I were brought aboard at that first meeting, and we immediately commissioned an in-house survey of state voters in order to narrow the message for the voter pamphlet argument. Given the paucity of resources, the ballot statement would prove to be a critical piece of the voter contact messaging and we needed to get it right.
State Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner and the California Correctional Supervisors Association agreed to each fund half the cost of the survey, which was completed on July 6—only two days before the ballot statements were due.
While the initial head-to-head results were abysmal (Proposition 5 was passing 68 percent “yes” to 21 per- cent “no”), veteran California survey analyst Val Smith found a path to victory that represented a glimmer of hope: Both the message and the messenger mattered. The message that Proposition 5 would hurt public safety worked, but it worked best when delivered by surprising or unexpected messengers. In the end, it was precisely that combination that allowed the underfunded “No on 5” campaign to defeat a much better funded proponent.
The survey also showed us that we didn’t need to match Soros dollar for dollar, we simply had to hit our threshold budget to allow our non-traditional messengers to deliver our very traditional message.
Our initial analysis found the difference between the promise and the reality of Proposition 5 because what the initiative called “non-violent offenders” included those convicted of child abuse, domestic violence, identity theft, auto theft and vehicular manslaughter while driving under the influence. When made aware of this misdirection, we found voters became concerned. But when we made those same opposition arguments coming from voices trusted by Democrats and independents, we quickly moved the numbers in both of those columns without any significant attrition among Republicans. Based on that finding, the “no” campaign began to bring in groups and activists one would usually expect to find on the opposing sides.
Fresno Chief of Police Jerry Dyer, who headed the California Police Chiefs Association, had developed a strong relationship with Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), a relationship strong enough to quickly bring MADD aboard as a signer of the opposition ballot argument.
Another key analyst of the measure’s likely effects was Drug Court Judge Stephen Manley, whose credibility among drug treatment professionals went a long way toward convincing anti-drug abuse crusaders like actor Martin Sheen to play a major role in the “no” campaign. The California League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) came aboard the “no” campaign, as did Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers. In short, the “No on 5” campaign was soon trans- formed from a typical law enforcement campaign into a diverse and substantive coalition.
An early mistake made by the proposition’s backers was to tell the state’s many “slate mail” producers that the campaign would not be buying space. (For non-Californians, slate mailers are commercial co-op mailings funded by selling space to a variety of campaigns.) This enabled the opposition campaign to buy space at rock- bottom prices. Tens of millions of slate mailings went out to targeted audiences, with a message from Dolores Huerta and LULAC to Latinos, Martin Sheen to Democrats and MADD to Republicans.
Proposition 5 opponents pointed out that, if passed, it would cut parole for drug dealers caught with $50,000 worth of methamphetamine from three years to just six months. It would have replaced proven drug treatment programs with “harm reduction” programs that let of- fenders set their own goals. This was another side to the story, of course, and when suddenly challenged on the “treatment” side of the argument, proponents seemed to initially be caught flatfooted (no pun intended).
Clearly, the proponents doubted that the opposition campaign would ever grow into a real coalition or that it could raise the bare minimum needed to deliver the threshold message. While county district attorneys such as Sacramento’s Jan Scully and Los Angeles County’s Steve Cooley, among others, provided invaluable analysis and helped to secure endorsements and funding, every campaign needs an unexpected superstar, someone who steps forward in a way that even surprises himself or her- self. In the “No on 5” campaign, that person was San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis.
While her leadership as head of the state’s district attorneys association was important, Dumanis became the point person for the campaign’s finance efforts. Initially accompanied by the campaign’s Communications Director Kevin Spillane, the “Kevin and Bonnie Show” proved to be a stunning team without which the campaign would have foundered early. Inspired by the “all- in” actions of such groups as the California Narcotics Officers Association, which literally emptied its modest coffers into the campaign, Dumanis went after business leaders, major industries and tribal businesses for sup- port.
Dumanis also helped turn around the initiative’s initial support among the state’s editorial page editors. By campaign’s end, the back of the editorial support for Proposition 5 was broken, with virtually every major paper in the state joining the opposition. A critical juncture was reached when the California Correction Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) made an initial million dollar commitment to help fund a single 30-scond spot to run in the final eight to 10 days in California’s enormously expensive television markets.
That spot was made possible not only by CCPOA, but by significant contributions from such business leaders as former eBay head Meg Whitman. Finally, the unexpected messenger in the “no” spot was none other than the well-respected senior senator from California, Democrat Dianne Feinstein.
By contrast, the proponents produced a number of their own spots, but seemed conflicted about what was their real message. In the end, a focused message, a cred- ible messenger and a coalition whose members set their differences aside to achieve a common goal did exactly that, winning election night with 59.8 percent of the vote, having been outspent $7.5 million to $2.8 million.
Every campaign is different, of course, but the fundamentals remain remarkably consistent. A focused message and a believable messenger can help an under-funded coalition bring down even the biggest of opponents.
Wayne Johnson is president of The Wayne Johnson Agency. He may be reached at Wayne@TheAgency.US.