Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Best That Money Can Buy

Gail Collins has a terrific column up today which uses the backdrop of the California primary election results to discuss the role of big money in election campaigns, especially after the Supreme Court dropped the other shoe with respect to restricting publicly financed elections. Her analysis is, I think, right on the money (pun intended).

That said, however, there's a part of the California election results which appears to indicate that the victory of the owners was only partial. They actually lost on a couple of propositions being considered by the electorate. The center-left editorial board of the Los Angeles Times took a center-left look at the results and noted some of the reasons why the two corporate-funded propositions lost.

Props to California voters. They are smarter than most pundits and political consultants (and sometimes editorial pages) give them credit for being, as evidenced by two failed attempts to buy their votes in Tuesday's election.

The conventional political wisdom suggested that Propositions 16 and 17 would be tough to beat, given that their corporate backers — Northern California utility Pacific Gas & Electric and Mercury Insurance, respectively — poured buckets of money into deeply misleading ad campaigns. Opponents, meanwhile, raised barely enough to print lawn signs. Yet both measures lost by a margin of more than 4 percentage points.

The editorial is pretty straightforward in its attempt to suss out just why the two propositions failed. The "anti-incumbent" mood of the electorate wasn't in play. The public's distrust of corporations after what they did to the economy probably wasn't either. So, what then?

... Yet there are some truisms that help explain Tuesday's results, such as the one that suggests money is far less effective in passing initiatives than in defeating them. Voters are naturally skeptical of ballot measures, especially complex ones on such arcane topics as public electricity ventures (Proposition 16) and auto insurance discounts (Proposition 17). Ad campaigns can fuel that skepticism to make voters defeat even beneficial initiatives, but ads urging a yes vote are given more scrutiny, especially when they're funded by a single source.

While that wasn't the case for Proposition 8, the dreadful homophobic prop that passed a couple of years ago, I think that was the case this time around, and for one of the reasons discarded by the editorial: voters did indeed have access to information outside of the blitz of television commercials funded by the industries involved. Articles, columns, and editorials in newspapers statewide (including the L.A. Times) came forward with rational and factual information on just how duplicitous the prop-backers were being. And even though only 24.8% of California voters cast a ballot, the majority of them got it right.

I do take comfort in that small victory.

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