Initiative campaigns fund dueling studies

Back in July, the committee opposing Proposition 2, the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act, issued a press release praising a study on the initiative from the University of California at Davis. The next day, the committee pushing for Prop. 2 put out their own press release, praising the very same study—and drawing very different conclusions about what it said.

This is business as usual in California. Each election year, voters are asked to decide issues that other states might leave to politicians—or to bureaucrats with advanced degrees. Meanwhile, a growing industry has sprung up to try to educate—a term some might debate—these voters on the complex issues they’re being asked to decide. As the ballot process becomes more important and sophisticated, campaigns are increasingly turning to economists, scientists and college professors to try to help them make their case.  
This year, Californians are being asked to decide on a dozen initiatives. Many of them deal with complex topics like redistricting or the economics of building a high speed rail system. While most voters will never read them, most campaigns on each side of an initiative have some sort of a study posted on their website.

“People want some third party validation,” said Marty Wilson, a political consultant to the Yes on 10 campaign.

This is particularly true when voters are facing the confusing spectacle of voting on two renewable energy initiatives that are widely opposed by environmentalists. The Prop. 10 campaign is promoting their initiative, which calls for the state to spend $5 billion on renewable energy, using a study by the consulting firm Tiax. The report said that California’s greenhouse gas emissions would go down sharply under the plan.

But environmentalists say the devil is in the details when it comes for Prop. 10 and another renewable energy initiative, Proposition 7. Many voters will be tended to push the yes button—leaving environmentalists scrambling to use facts and figures to steer people away from only relying on their positive feelings about environmentalism.

“I’m outraged that you can buy your way onto the ballot by spending $10 million and targeting voter confusion,” said Anthony Rubenstein, an environmental communications strategist who is fighting Prop. 10.

The $10 million has come from Clean Energy Fuels Corp., the T. Boone Pickens’-owned natural gas technology company. Rubenstein said the sponsors of the initiative are “hiding behind the rainbows and puppy dogs” of feel-good environmental rhetoric. The no side has very little funding to get a message across. But in the end, their best argument to voters may be an emotional one—that T. Boone Pickens was the main funding source of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the independent 527 campaign that helped sink Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry in 2004.

But the Yes on 10 side may be benefitting from a big, memorable number that that has gotten out into the media: the $700 billion a year the US spends on foreign oil. This figure is featured in Yes on 10 ads, and has been mentioned by both presidential campaigns.
This strategy may be similar to the one successfully used to pass a quartet of Indian gaming compacts last January. They yes side, the Coalition to Protect California’s Budget, touted a paid study from the Silicon Valley-based Analysis Group which said the state would see $9 billion in revenue from the deals. The no side got their own study, from Blue Sky Consulting, which claimed the actual money to state would be a fraction of that amount. But the $9 billion number stuck in people’s heads—and was picked up repeatedly in editorials.

Campaigns also use research and numbers to move the debate onto topics where they think they can win. Take Prop. 2 again. Both sides agree that if voters make an “emotional” assessment, they’ll vote for better treatment of farm animals.

“The yes side is certainly making an emotional appeal to voters,” said Julie Buckner, spokeswoman for Californians for Safe Food, the egg-industry backed group which is opposing Prop. 2. “Everyone loves animals. The yes side, in their ads, they’re comparing farm animals to pets.”

Buckner added: “We have a much more factual, rational, scientifically-based argument to make.”

Jennifer Fearing, chief economist for the Humane Society of the United States, which is backing Prop. 2, acknowledged that one of her main roles in to blunt that argument.

“The strategy for us is to win the economic and scientific arguments so that the conversation focuses on the moral questions at stake, for which our opponents have no answer,” Fearing said.

Predictably, the ads on both sides have shown a flurry of numbers—most with dollar signs attached to them. One No on Prop. 2 ad shows Dr. Bruce Charlton of the University of California’s Food Safety Lab warning about the cost. Another shows that the cost of eggs went up 20 percent between 2006 and 2007, without actually making a link to Prop. 2. Fearing countered that by pointing to a recently-opened Justice Dept. investigation into the egg industry for price fixing as the real culprit for the rise in prices.

Then there’s the UC Davis study, “Economic Effects of Proposed Restrictions on Egg Laying Facilities in California.” The No on 2 side points to the parts that say that getting rid of the current cage system would raise the cost of producing eggs by at least 20 percent—something Buckner said in a statement would “wipe out egg farming in California.”

Fearing, meanwhile, points to the parts of the report that say “we would expect little if any cost increase and no substantial impact on prices to California consumers.” She also cites previous work by lead author, Dr. Joy Mench, stating “conventional cages for laying hens have pervasive problems for welfare.”

The increasing need to back up initiative campaigns with academic—or academic sounding—research has been a boon for some, particularly some former state employees and college professors who have gone into private consulting. But as researchers get increasing pulled into partisan politics, there also may be a price to pay in terms of credibility.

“Whenever I hear an opinion,” Fearing said, “I’m like ‘Where’s the money?’”

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