Of the many conclusions that can be drawn from the March primary election in California, perhaps the most notable is that money doesn’t always translate into political success.
Let’s start with the “bad” Proposition 13 — the $15 billion statewide school bond measure which, at this writing, is way behind in the polls. The Associated Press has already called the election for the opponents.
The proponents of the bond had a lot of things going for them including the vocal support of the governor, education interests, public sector unions and developers. They also had a sympathetic purpose. Raising money for schools has traditionally been easy in California because education ranks very high in importance among the state’s voters. The slogan “it’s for the kids” may over overused, but it can still be effective.
The proponents also had something else which should have translated into a huge advantage: Lots of campaign cash. Although all the financial filings with California’s secretary of state are not yet publicly available, the proponents spent at least $10 million and perhaps much more than that to push their messaging.
As for the opponents, a small-scale, grassroots guerrilla campaign anchored with a modest $250,000 statewide radio ad proved to be highly effective. But perhaps the most important factor in the opponents’ campaign was a carefully crafted opposition argument in the official ballot pamphlet.
That didn’t cost a dime. That argument hit some sympathy buttons as well, including the high tax burden in California, the misuse and waste of existing education dollars and the threat of higher property taxes due to an obscure provision in the bond measure that raised local districts’ debt ceiling so they could issue more bonds themselves.
Local school bonds add extra charges to property tax bills.
The bond backers may have assumed that a 40-to-1 advantage in campaign dollars would be more than enough, no matter how flawed the underlying proposal. It is clear now that they were mistaken.
Another example of how campaign money doesn’t translate into success is the failed presidential candidacy of Michael Bloomberg. Although that was a national campaign, he spent tons of money here in California on radio, television and social media, all for naught. Nationally, he spent over $600 million and managed only to pick up a few delegates in the American Samoa Islands. Comics have labeled Bloomberg as the “Jesse Smollett” of politics insofar as they both paid a lot of money to get beaten.
California has a long history of well-funded campaigns doing poorly, including gubernatorial candidates Ron Unz, Al Checci and Meg Whitman, for whom seemingly unlimited money became more of a negative than a positive.
The same is true for initiatives in that powerful interest groups such as insurance companies, doctors and public-sector unions often come up short with their proposals using the tools of direct democracy.
California politician Jesse Unruh famously said that money is the mother’s milk of politics and that still is no doubt true.
Financial resources are usually a prerequisite to political success.
However, Americans should not be fooled into believing that $200,000 spent by Russia on tacky Facebook ads could affect a national election when Michael Bloomberg couldn’t make a dent in the Democratic primary with $600 million.
Jon Coupal — President, Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association