WHY PROGRESSIVES KEEP LOSING CALIFORNIA’S INITIATIVE WARS, by Hunter Cutting and Kim Deterline, photos by Scott Braley


In the past few years a pattern has emerged from a string of explosive political campaigns in California that have sparked public debate across the nation. Launched in the form of ballot initiatives, these campaigns have attacked affirmative action, immigrants, bilingual education, and labor unions. They have divided traditional progressive coalitions, scapegoated marginalized communities, and revived formerly bankrupt social policies. The results of these battles contain profound lessons about the difference between winning and losing campaign strategies and media messages.

Hijacking the Terms of Debate

Each of these initiative campaigns has created a tremendous shift in the terms of debate. While the initiatives themselves are strongly regressive, their proponents have campaigned under the banners of equality, fairness, and even the advancement of children. Formerly the rallying cries of progressive movements, these values have been usurped by the media consultants of the right. And the surrender of initiative opponents to the new terms of debate completed the sea change in political discourse.

Proposition 209, the initiative outlawing affirmative action, was promoted as a move to “end unfair racial preferences.” The response from the most vocal opponents was “mend it, don’t end it.” Far from challenging the idea that Proposition 209 was about fairness, this media message confirmed the notion that there was something basically wrong with affirmative action. While it may be worthwhile to have a policy discussion on how to improve affirmative action programs, the media is not the place to hold that discussion–especially in the face of a withering attack on the very legitimacy of affirmative action.

In similar fashion, Proposition 187, the initiative to deny health care and education to illegal immigrants, was promoted as stopping the purported “drain that immigrants have placed on our public schools and state resources.” In a bit of surreal harmony, the official ballot pamphlet argument written by opponents of 187 opened with a statement that illegal immigration was a problem in need of a solution. Years of funding cuts to schools and public services became invisible in this debate.

Most recently, the campaign for Proposition 227, the measure to end bilingual education, argued that the best way to teach kids English was to get rid of bilingual education. In response, anti-227 rhetoric focused on secondary issues such as the cost of implementing the initiative and the lawsuits that might hit teachers who defy the new policy. Pushing this strategy to absurdity, the No on 227 campaign mailed letters to opinion leaders and potential donors that introduced the initiative but never mentioned the words “bilingual” or “bilingual education.” The basic premise of Proposition 227–that bilingual education doesn’t teach English–was never debunked. By abandoning any defense of bilingual education, opponents of Proposition 227 allowed proponents to take on the role of children’s champions, defending immigrants’ right to learn English. That role had previously been filled by bilingual education advocates.

Conceding the Moral High Ground

While all of these regressive initiatives were cloaked in the rhetoric of progressive values, they in fact drew much of their support from a potent brew of hatred, racism, and fear. None of the major campaigns launched by initiative opponents drew out this contradiction. In a moment of dark irony, the campaign against Proposition 187 even reinforced proponents’ anti-immigrant message with a radio ad played heavily in Southern California. The commercial explained that if Proposition 187 were to pass, “our” children would be at risk of catching infectious diseases from the sickness-carrying immigrant children who would go without health care.

Paralyzed by a fear of White backlash, these campaigns refused to point out the racial scapegoating inherent in these initiatives. In each case opponents passed on an opportunity to stake out a moral position the average voter could agree with. As a result, the moral high ground was conceded to proponents, who continued to campaign in the name of fairness.

Changing Public Opinion

The method behind this madness is a rule of thumb among center-left electoral strategists holding that election campaigns are a time for persuasion, not education. One should attempt not to change the minds of voters, but to make an argument voters already agree with. The terms of debate are assumed to be set, and strategists must concentrate on finding the best point of leverage available in the current political terrain. Unfortunately for the center-left, over the last 30 years the right has reshaped the political landscape in the United States. And accepting this as a fait accompli means fighting a losing battle up a very steep hill.

In accordance with the prevailing rule of thumb, managers of campaigns against the California initiatives crafted media messages to match rather than to change the attitudes and opinions of their target audiences. In the campaign opposing Proposition 227, media strategists tested the political waters by polling frequent voters (heavily White and older residents) and found that this target group did not support bilingual education. Strategists therefore decided to find and focus on secondary arguments against Proposition 227 that this target audience did support. As a result, while the pro-227 campaign directly attacked bilingual education, no one rose to defend it.

Because campaigners never clearly asserted the fundamental effectiveness and morality of policies such as affirmative action and bilingual education, voters were never given powerful reasons to support them.

Ironically, initiative campaigns are among the few things that get people to pay attention to debate over public issues. A campaign gives you the public’s ear and thus the opportunity to change public opinion. A campaign also allows organizers to link education with action. They can give the newly educated something to do–vote, campaign, raise funds.

During the Proposition 209 campaign, proponents were able to dramatically change public opinion of affirmative action. Polls taken before the start of the campaign revealed widespread public support for affirmative action, even among White voters. Undaunted by these results, proponents attacked affirmative action by renaming the policy “racial preferences.” The process of renaming involved consistent and clear repetition of the message “racial preferences are unfair” whenever the subject of affirmative action was broached in the news media or in campaign promotions. Proponents were able to associate the policy with injustice, and public support for affirmative action dropped.

Of course, that re-christening also allowed proponents to define affirmative action as a purely racial issue, thus making a subtle appeal to latent racism among voters and shoving the tremendous benefit of affirmative action to women out of the spotlight. This was a critical accomplishment, as the union of women voters with voters of color was a hypothetical winning majority in this contest.

Targeting White Voters

Across the board, the campaigns surrounding these initiatives were focused on appealing to older White voters. Conventional wisdom dictates that campaign messages in television commercials and mailers should be directed only at voters who regularly show up at the polls. And while White residents make up barely more than half the population of California, they account for a much larger majority of voters who show up at the polls. Older residents are similarly overrepresented at the polls. So in order to get the biggest bang for their buck, opposition campaigns concentrated their resources on older White residents. As a result, election mailers didn’t show up in the mailboxes of infrequent voters–younger people and people of color–and TV commercials were not crafted to speak to them. In addition, the Democratic Party failed to fully fund election day get-out-the-vote activities in neighborhoods where people of color live because low-turn-out precincts are concentrated in those areas.

For opponents of these wedge initiatives, the strategic targeting of older White voters raises a serious question: Are marginalized communities ignored because they don’t show up at the polls, or do they opt out of voting because they are being ignored? The nearsighted logic of initiative opponents appears to have set in motion a vicious circle. Campaigns that ignore the concerns of communities of color engage in self-fulfilling prophecy.

Ignoring Communities of Color

The campaigns against Propositions 187 and 227 revealed the error in assuming that communities of color won’t vote. The Latino community in particular was awakened by the threat posed by Proposition 187. In a campaign filled with dramatic images of immigrants swarming over the Mexican border, Latino voters could not miss the message meant for older White audiences: Brown people are a threat. That message strongly affected Latino voters, who came to the polls in unexpected numbers and have come back in increasing numbers since then.

Nevertheless, during the Proposition 227 campaign, Latino voters were still seen as difficult to motivate. In addition, early polling results registered moderately strong support for Proposition 227 among Latinos. Strategists were convinced that Latino communities should not be a high priority. On election day, however, Latino residents once again came to the polls in numbers beyond expectations, and they voted against Proposition 227. This result came after a strong editorial campaign by Spanish-language television stations aimed at changing public opinion, and an aggressive door-to-door canvassing campaign in hundreds of neighborhoods of color conducted by a number of groups including a new political actor in the state, Californians for Justice (CFJ).

Photo ©1996 Scott Braley

Californians for Justice was one of the few statewide organizations to prioritize outreach to communities of color in the Proposition 209 and 227 campaigns.

The lack of any statewide political organization prioritizing progressive issues and the concerns of communities of color spurred the creation of CFJ during the Proposition 209 campaign in 1996. The organization has since gone on to become a street-level champion of civil rights in California and offers an alternative for fighting initiative campaigns. Like Jesse Jackson’s campaign for president, CFJ has shown that communities of color can be mobilized to vote, provided they are given a reason to go to the polls.

Missing the Mark with the News Media

There were also strong similarities in the way the losing initiative campaigns approached the news media. In traditional campaign style, editorial boards of the major English-language daily newspapers were approached and, in most cases, their opposition to the initiatives was secured. Front-line news reporters, however, were largely ignored except as sources for placing favorable news stories.

This strategy proved costly, because much of the public debate on key issues in these campaigns was determined by the content and framing of news stories written by reporters. During the key early months of the Proposition 227 campaign, when news coverage framed the initiative, none of the state’s three leading newspapers ran a news story about the effectiveness of bilingual programs, despite a wealth of academic work supporting bilingual education and numerous school programs that demonstrate its success. As a result, the contention of Proposition 227 proponents that bilingual education was a failure went largely unchallenged in the news media.

During the Proposition 209 campaign, news reporters adopted the proponents’ term “racial preferences” as a neutral description of affirmative action. Opponents of Proposition 209 failed to correct this misuse of terminology and as a result the fight to save affirmative action came to be described by newspapers as the fight to support “racial preferences.” Not surprisingly, polling data indicated that while the public supported “affirmative action,” it did not support “racial preferences.”

Road Signs to Success

There have been a few bright moments during the initiative wars of the past few years that illuminate the possibilities for successful opposition. One of the high points in the campaign against Proposition 209 came when California State University Northridge students set up a debate on the initiative. Until that point, Ward Connerly, an “up-by-his-bootstraps” African American businessman and university regent, had been the most visible proponent of Proposition 209. But in an inspired stroke of media savvy, students invited David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan member and national political figure, to speak on behalf of Proposition 209. Duke accepted the invitation, and Proposition 209 proponents reacted in a furor. The association with hate groups was clear and led voters to ask themselves whose side they wanted to be on.

In 1998, the campaign against Proposition 226 picked up on this strategy and scored a stunning victory at the polls. The initiative called for unions to seek written permission from each of their members before spending their dues on political activities. Once again, proponents framed their arguments in terms of fairness and justice. The initiative was sold as a way to protect working men and women from being forced to support political causes that they in fact opposed.

Opponents sidestepped lengthy explanations of how elected representatives and union elections work and avoided nit-picking at side issues. Instead, they spoke directly to the issue of fairness and exposed the real forces driving the initiative. A series of campaign commercials hammered home the question: If this initiative is supposed to protect working people in California, then why is the campaign being funded by a millionaire businessman from Indiana?

Opponents derailed a Sierra Club ballot initiative on immigration in a similar fashion. Brought before the club’s half-million members and discussed on the front pages of the nation’s newspapers, Measure A promoted new limits on immigration to the U.S. in the name of environmental protection. Rather than argue about immigration’s net environmental impact on the planet, opponents crafted a clear and effective sound bite: “Blaming immigrants for our environmental problems is mean-spirited and misguided. It blinds us to the real culprits, like logging companies and chemical factories, and it blinds us to the real solutions, like telling developers they can’t fill in wetlands for golf courses.” A key part of promoting this message was careful research documenting the large support the Measure A campaign received from openly White-supremacist organizations. This extra effort went beyond simply calling people racist.

What Is To Be Done?

Center-left strategists tend to look at elections as the end in themselves, unlike right-wing strategists, who take the long view and have set out to reframe the terms of debate. We must go beyond choosing messages that match public opinion and instead craft messages that resonate strongly enough with shared values to change public opinion. To defeat future right-wing initiative campaigns–especially those powered by unspoken appeals to the fear and hatred of racism–both on-the-ground organizing and the content of our media messages must change.

Photo ©1996 Scott Braley

Voter registration by Californians for Justice at Oakland Chinatown street fair.

Campaigns must expose both White audiences and people of color to the racial motivations behind these initiatives and debunk the myths and lies at the heart of the proponents’ arguments. Precinct work in communities of color must be better organized and funded. Pressuring journalists for accurate, thorough, and balanced coverage is critical to promoting our messages. And media messages can no longer be targeted only at older White voters. They must inspire multiracial audiences in terms that everyone can understand.

Future campaigns must challenge the terms of debate and reclaim the values of fairness and equality. We have to reclaim the moral high ground on which everyone can agree. The values we fight for are widely shared, and this is our strength. Our messages must defend our agenda, or we will go on losing both battles and the war.

Hunter Cutting, associate director of We Interrupt This Message, is a long-time political campaign manager and media consultant to nonprofits. Kim Deterline, executive director of We Interrupt This Message, is a veteran media strategist for public interest organizations.

Research assistance for this article was provided by Angela Eaton.

Source: Media File, Volume 17 #4, Sep-Oct 1998