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Wild Cards In The Deck

State Ballot Initiatives Don't Have To Boost Turnout To Influence The Presidential Race

When they step into voting booths this November, most Coloradoans probably won't have the state's right-to-work ballot initiative at the forefront of their minds. Nor will most Ohioans come to the polls just to vote on an initiative to ensure paid sick leave.

But although it's unlikely that state ballot initiatives will pack a dramatic turnout punch in a year when record numbers are already expected at the polls, their potential to shape the terms of debate in battleground states means both presidential campaigns will need to keep an eye trained downballot.


Some election observers are already paying attention: The Colorado and Ohio ballot initiatives are among those listed on the plain white poster board mounted in the conference room at the progressive Ballot Initiative Strategy Center in Washington. At the top of the handwritten list, printed in bold red marker, is the title "Ballot Measures that Matter to the Election."

"The presence of an initiative makes the differences between candidates more tangible," said Kristina Wilfore, the center's executive director. Wilfore said that although ballot initiatives historically don't create turnout spikes in presidential election years, the presence of issue campaigns can have an important "priming effect" that makes voters more amenable to a particular candidate's message.

Some Democrats hope Ohio's Healthy Families Initiative provides just that kind of boost for Barack Obama in the Buckeye State. The measure, expected to be approved for the November ballot, would mandate that all companies with more than 25 workers provide seven paid days of sick leave to employees. A recent Quinnipiac poll found that 71 percent of Ohioans support the sick leave requirement, which is almost identical to a measure in Obama's proposed economic plan. Republican John McCain opposes the measure.


To veterans of the 2004 presidential campaign, the perceived impact of ballot initiatives -- especially in Ohio -- is all too familiar. After President Bush's squeaker win in Ohio, a flurry of analysis emerged crediting the victory to a bloc of evangelical voters mobilized by a state ballot measure to ban same-sex marriage.

That, says University of Florida professor Daniel Smith, is overstated. "It's the main thing that political pundits get wrong," said Smith, whose study of 2004 returns found no evidence that conservative turnout spiked in Ohio as a result of the initiative, or in any of the other 10 states that voted on the measure. Despite the perception that the marriage referendum won Bush the presidency, the turnout effect of such measures in presidential election years is negligible, Smith contends.

Alumni of the 2004 race agree. Bush-Cheney political director Terry Nelson said of the marriage initiative, "There's no clear-cut evidence that it was the major driver of turnout in those states, nor did it guarantee a victory by George Bush." Kerry-Edwards pollster Mark Mellman called the notion of ballot-fueled turnout "a huge mythology." Asked how much direct impact ballot initiatives could have on the Obama-McCain race, Mellman is quick with a prediction: "About zero."

But, despite the small chances that a ballot measure will turn into a game-changer, campaign gurus cannot risk ignoring them because such initiatives help set the tone of the debate in key battlegrounds. "You definitely have to be aware," Nelson said. "You have to make decisions -- when some of these states have numerous initiatives -- about which ones are politically important."


"They can cause fits," agrees Mellman, who adds that candidates must expect to be confronted by voters and reporters at every turn about local voting issues. "The way in which you deal with the issue contributes to the overall image that the candidate has for either being decisive or wishy-washy, liberal or moderate."

A host of controversial ballot measures could complicate the candidates' messages in Colorado, where the threshold for ballot placement is particularly low and media time is relatively inexpensive, thus encouraging outside advocacy groups to throw their advertising dollars around.

One initiative likely to reach the Colorado ballot is backed by African-American Republican activist Ward Connerly, whose campaign to overturn affirmative action measures will also appear in Arizona and Nebraska. (Connerly's effort to make the ballot in Oklahoma and Missouri failed, and the signatures submitted in Colorado are currently under scrutiny.)

The issue has already proved sticky for McCain, who was accused of flip-flopping this week after announcing his support for Connerly's measure on ABC's "This Week" with George Stephanopoulos. Democrats -- who had anticipated a potential problem for McCain around the issue -- eagerly circulated a quote by the senator from 1998, when he derided a similar ballot measure as "divisive."

Some voters may see the move as politically opportunist, which would hardly be good news for a candidate running on a platform of "Straight Talk." But experts note that Democrats, too, could be harmed by an energetic anti-affirmative-action campaign. "It can put Obama in a tough position," Smith said. "Especially in a downturn of the economy, white voters may be looking for someone to blame for job losses or their poor financial situation."

Another set of dueling measures in the Centennial State pits labor against business interests in an amendment war over union regulations. That could prove thorny for Obama, who has built a loyal labor coalition nationally but stands to gain little from taking a pro-union stand in a state with a small union presence and a high percentage of centrist swing voters.

Both proposals are on the BISC's list of important initiatives, as is another controversial Colorado measure -- one that Democrats hope might trip up McCain. On the November ballot, an anti-abortion group will ask voters to grant to fertilized eggs the legal status of "personhood," a first step to challenging abortion rights. The proposal has proved controversial even among abortion opponents, possibly creating a narrow needle for the presumptive Republican nominee to thread.

Measures like Colorado's personhood proposal -- as well as high-profile initiatives on same-sex marriage in California and Florida -- could lose their bite in a year when the economy looks poised to drown out the social-issue battle cries of years past. And even some Republicans note that the same social-issue amendments that propelled Bush to victory in 2004 could backfire against his aspiring successor. "John McCain doesn't do well in the gray areas," one GOP operative says. "If it appears that he's not as enthusiastic about the social conservative standpoint on those issues, it will again serve as a reminder of the historical problems he's had with social conservatives."

In the maze of hypothetical pros and cons, Republicans and Democrats alike concede that, when it comes to a voter's decision for president, the tangle of proposals on state ballots are mere drops in the bucket. But for those who have watched national races won and lost by mere thousands of votes, every drop might count.

"The truth is, 80 percent of everything that happens in a campaign is meaningless," quips Mellman. "The problem is that we don't know which 80 percent. So we pay attention to everything."

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