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Initiative process abused

Friday, December 1, 2006

After working on more than 200 ballot initiative campaigns nationwide during a career that spans nearly 50 years, political consultant Chuck Winner knows what works and what doesn’t when it comes to the voters. He also knows what doesn’t work with the initiative and referendum process itself.

Chuck Winner with Dean McCaffery 
Chuck Winner, left, and Dean Edward J. McCaffery
“I think it has been abused and overused,” Winner told USC Law Dean Edward J. McCaffery Nov. 28. “It’s abused time and again. My opinion is that when you circumvent the legislative process or representative democracy to solve a problem, you can take it to an extreme and that extreme becomes, in some ways, worse than the problem you were trying to solve in the first place. Single-issue up or down initiative votes are very often not the best way to govern.”

Winner and Dean McCaffery spoke before a room full of law and undergraduate students, faculty and staff in the second installment of USC Law’s “Conversations with the Dean.”

As a supporter of the Initiative & Referendum Institute at USC and a partner in Winner & Mandabach Campaigns, the nation’s premier political consulting company specializing in ballot measures, Winner also knows that lengthy and complicated ballot measures can deceive the public.

Students listen to Chuck Winner talk about campaigning for initatives“Oftentimes people pass measures that are something other than what they thought they were voting on,” Winner said. “Oftentimes, measures - as lawyers and law students know - have parts or all of them that are thrown out because they are unconstitutional.”

By perusing an initiative’s 60 or 70 pages of text, consultants can select just a few words they think will make the measure sink or swim with voters and exploit them, Winner said, noting that his own firm has done the same with particularly deceptive initiatives.

“You’re really getting paid to exploit the limited attention span of voters – of course, you’re getting paid to win and you want to win,” McCaffery said.

In the recent November 2006 election, Winner and Mandabach headed a campaign for Missouri’s Proposition 71, which prevented the state from imposing restrictions on stem cell research tighter than those at the federal level. Meanwhile, Missouri Democratic Senate candidate Claire McCaskill ran an attention-getting ad featuring Michael J. Fox, who endorsed the candidate for her support of stem cell research.

USC Law grad Ruth Levine '43 
USC Law alumna Ruth Lavine
'43 attended Winner's talk
As McCaskill’s campaign progressed and her numbers went up, Winner saw support for Prop. 71 decline because the ad also caught the attention of many anti-stem cell voters. In response, Winner created an ad noting that conservative radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh was opposed to Prop. 71 and showing Limbaugh accusing Fox of exaggerating the symptoms of his Parkinson’s disease for the spot. Prop. 71’s numbers went up and the pro-stem cell research proposition passed.

Winner got his first taste of campaigning in 1952, when he went door to door for President Eisenhower, his parents’ favorite. After that, Winner switched to Democratic candidates. He worked with Gov. Pat Brown’s campaign and became involved in national politics during Pres. John F. Kennedy’s run.

Winner and Mandabach Campaigns began to focus solely on ballot measure campaigns in 1976, when the firm was hired to oppose a measure that would have shut down California’s nuclear plants. They had a resounding victory, winning every county in the state.

“That sort of catapulted us into becoming a ballot measure-specialist firm,” Winner said. “Truth is, in my view, if you don’t have to work with candidates in the political business, it’s better not to work with candidates.”

Dean McCaffery, Professor Beth Garretty, Chuck Winner 
Dean McCaffery (l) and Winner (r) with
Professor Beth Garrett, board member of
the USC Initiative & Referendum Institute
The firm takes on campaigns it supports, Winner said, and has a 90 percent success rate, attributable in no small part to thorough research and strong communication.

“It’s very, very important for us to understand what the voters are thinking or, when we are working in a non-election setting on a public policy issue, how our audience instinctively feels about the issue, whether that audience is one individual or whether it’s a whole population,” he said. “That way we can communicate with them on their terms, not on our terms.”



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