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The future of campaign spending

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Stephanie Paige Ogburn | Nov 19, 2012 06:00 AM

Imagine you're one of the 40,000 people in America with a net worth of over $30 million. That's enough to have some spare cash to play with. Why not use it to influence politics? Come on. You know you want to.

Yet, you're faced with a problem. According to analyses by the Center for Responsive Politics, if you are one of the multi-millionaires who threw your money into national races, you didn't get a very good return on investment. Outside spending in the presidential race skewed widely Republican -- yet Obama won. Republicans put $100 million into seven Senate races that they lost. They outspent Democrats in 24 House races -- that they still lost. (Look at this map on ad spending! It's crazy!)

If I were a political consultant, I'd likely tell those one percenters to slack off on national race spending and pony up at the state level. By funneling their money into ballot measures and initiatives in states, they can have influence all over the country! As heavy political spenders take stock of their expenditures, maybe this is what we'll see more of in the next election cycle --  a think globally, bribe locally sort of thing. Because particularly in ballot initiatives, it seems heavy spending was often able to shift public opinion.

Take California's GMO labeling initiative. As of Oct. 1, public opinion was three to one in favor of labeling. By Oct 11 -- and millions of dollars of opposition later, as Mother Jones food blogger Tom Philpott points out -- opinion was split, and "the proposition's slide toward defeat had begun." The opposition ultimately spent $45.6 million, the proponents $8.7 million.

I was interested in seeing if this pattern held true in many controversial ballot initiatives. So I made a chart, with selected initiatives, spending for or against, and their outcome. I chose marijuana and gay marriage in many states because they are initiatives where the electorate seems to be closely divided or shifting opinion. The other initiatives I include in the chart are included because I've either been following them or the results seemed surprising to me.

Items in green are ones where those who spent the most won. Items in red are ones where those who spent the most lost.

Ballot Measures Table

There's more to learn from the red rows than the green, I think. In Arkansas, for example, legalizing medical marijuana was never popular. So despite the great disparity in money spent, it was not enough to overcome the fact that most people in Arkansas just didn't want medical marijuana to be legal.

Notably, the spending in Arkansas did shift public opinion, though, just not enough. As of Oct 18, only 38 percent of likely voters supported legalizing medical marijuana. Yet after money poured into the state in support of Issue 5, as it was called, 48.6 percent of the voting public supported the measure on Nov. 6. That's a hefty hike.

The Oregon casino measure is another case in point. A Canadian casino investment group, which would benefit from the casino they would build if the measure passed, poured money into it. But most Oregonians don't like the idea of casinos popping up all over their state. So despite lots of spending on it from the pro side, the measure didn't win.

I'm unsure how to explain the outcome of California's Proposition 34, which would have repealed the death penalty and replaced it with life without parole, but failed. This was despite proponents outspending opponents by an incredible amount, and California's tradition of being a liberal state, where I would imagine most people would oppose the death penalty.

Bottom line: those throwing money into local campaigns seem more likely to be successful, but circumstances do matter. For instance, it seems like spending succeeded more frequently in areas where public opinion is closely split on the topic, or public opinion is relatively uninformed on the topic, and open to messaging, like in California's modified foods labeling proposition.

Some millionaires, obviously, have already caught onto the ballot initiative game. The biggest individual donor to Colorado's marijuana legalization effort was San Francisco-based Internet businessman Scott Banister. (Perhaps he's hoping to toke up legally on his next visit to Aspen?)

It will be interesting to see if money in ballot initiatives, particularly in states like Oregon, that are traditionally low in political spending, changes in the next election.

After all, those millionaires need to put their extra moola into something. Why not your state's ballot initiative?

Stephanie Paige Ogburn is the online editor at High Country News.

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