The rule of thumb for winning state ballot initiatives is to spend the most money. Although originally designed to give voters a direct legislative option, the process now gives deep-pocketed special interests an additional bite at the legislative apple. So regardless of policy preferences, whenever an underfunded campaign wins it deserves respectful pause to examine its winning tactics.
As background, California Attorney General Xavier Beccera introduced Proposition 16 in June in an effort to restore affirmative action and repeal 1996’s Proposition 209. That earlier proposition had banned racial and gender preferences in areas of public employment, contracting and education. Prop 16 supporters would spend nearly 16 times more money than Californians for Equal Rights and their “No on 16” campaign – $27 million to $1.7 million – but it still 57% of California voted against it.
To walk through some of No on 16’s winning tactics, Wenyuan Wu, executive director of Californians for Equal Rights, sat down with Sacto Politico.
Sacto Politico: During the campaign, did you have money for polling or were you flying blind?
Wenyuan Wu: We didn’t have much money to spend on polling, unlike the other side who spent $600,000 on polling and focus groups to fine tune their messages. We only did a very small quantitative survey at the beginning in July, and the internal numbers actually didn’t look very good for us. But we decided no matter what, even if we lose, we would stand up and put up a fight.
When the independent Public Policy Institute of California poll came out in late September, we were surprised that public opinion was not overwhelmingly against us. Then the other UC Berkley poll right before the election was even more favorable to us. At that moment, we realized we could win this thing.
SP: What was your feeling on election night?
WW: I went to San Diego, and we had a small election night party there. When the first numbers came in, they were from San Diego, which had been polling to favor Prop 16. San Diego was also one of the major media markets targeted by our opponent, but that first number came in favorable to our side. We were caught by pleasant surprise and thought we were probably going to win.
SP: What was the size of your campaign?
WW: Our campaign started with me as the only paid staff at the beginning of June. For the first month, I did everything from doing our web site to organizing volunteer groups to handling media inquiries and endorsement calls. In late June, our chief political consultant Arnold Steinberg joined, and the next month we added a statewide operational director. Soon after in August, we hired a small communications team that included a communications director and three part-time assistants to her.
We also had about 6,000 core supporters, and our Change.org petition drive attracted 143,000 signatures.
SP: Given such a smaller budget than your opponents, did you benefit from any missteps by them?
WW: Yes, they spent a lot of money on focus groups to come up with the best message, but the best they came up with was a black-and-white message. You are either with equal opportunity or against equal opportunity. You are either with [Black Lives Matter] or against BLM. You are either with Prop 16 or you are against all people of color. A lot of voters in an increasingly multiracial state are increasingly against these very binary presentations
They also misportrayed us as being only conservative Trump supporters and white supremacists crusading against affirmative action. In reality our campaign team and supporters were incredibly diverse. I am Chinese American and a political moderate. President of our campaign was Ward Connerly, who is African American and also chaired the Prop 209 campaign in 1996. We had strong support from the well-known UCLA law professor Richard Sander, who is white and a Democrat, and retired Judge Quintin Kopp is Jewish American and an original supporter of the 209 campaign.
SP: Tell me about your campaign budget and how you spent it.
WW: Most of our funding came from small donors in the Chinese community who were concerned by reinstituting racial preferences. Out of $1.7 million we raised, about $1.1 million went to online advertisements. We couldn’t afford broadcast advertising, although our opponents spent $11 million on TV ads. Another $200,000 went to legal services and polling. This included litigating against the attorney general on the biased ballot title in July.
We also spent between $40,000 and $50,000 on yard signs. About 20,000 signs. We had so many volunteers waiting to distribute them. Hundreds of people signed up on the very first day to be captains and super captains. The cost of the signs included shipping directly to several locations, and our super captains drove around on their own money and own time getting the lawn signs out.
SP: Your legal challenge to the attorney general came quite early on. That must have represented a big early decision, including investing so much of your early money.
WW: Absolutely. It was a very hard decision. We knew the odds were stacked against us in the court system and given the attorney general’s influence. The attorney general had published the ballot title and labeled the summary for Proposition 16 as a diversity action, which we felt was not true. We sued him, but we were not successful. It was difficult, but we knew we had to fight.
Interestingly, the Supreme Court judge in Sacramento agreed with us that the language did not reflect precisely what this proposition was about. But the judge said the attorney general is given a measure of deferential authority on ballot title question issues like this, so even though he agree with us, he let the ballot title stand.
SP: Explain your advertising program. With money coming it at an uneven pace, did that cause any problems?
WW: We ultimately did in 21 static image ads and about a dozen video ads. $1.1 million is a comparatively small budget in an election year, so this was only digital buys. We only had money to cover YouTube, Facebook and Google. But we only did Google for a brief period of time because the per impression cost is much higher than Facebook. So we prioritized Facebook over the other two.
With mail-in voting starting in early October, we began our ad campaign in mid-September and it continued through the last weekend before election day. So we had to spread that buy out. There were points of time when we ran out of money and had to aggressively grassroots fundraise by email. So money was coming in just as it was going out.
SP: What about free “earned media” through media coverage?
WW: This was very important, and why we added the communications team early on. The earned media effort we put out was very successful and helped us get our message out tremendously; however, it did not help with fundraising. We had many people writing letters to the editor, and we help virtual news conferences online and meetings with editorial boards. These were important to rebut the misperception of our campaign being a far-right crusade of white supremacists because we were so diverse. There are still extremely decent reporters in journalism. When presented our facts in an unbiased and rigorous way, even the most ideological reporters would pay attention. When they would ask where I was getting my numbers on state university and college admissions rate, I would surprise them and say from the university system Web site.
Along these lines, our ballot statement in rebuttal to our opponent was very revolutionary. Usually you just provide a blanket statement, but we used narratives of three different supporters who were all very interesting and significant in their own professions. These included a white, five-term former moderate Congressman. The second was an African-American political commentator who originally opposed Prop 209 in 1996, but now supports us. So that was quite dramatic. The third was an African American public school teacher from Central California. She is married to a Mexican-American, and she spoke from her personal background and professionally. She said we need to help needy students, but not just because of racial skin tone.
SP: Was it hard to resist during the campaign that human urge to get very riled up and passionate?
WW: Yes, I am very invested in this issue. I have worked on issues regarding equal rights and equal access for three years. This is a topic of tremendous personal passion for myself. At times, I needed to remind myself that I needed a cool head in order to win. The ultimate goal was to win and defend the principle of equal treatment for all.
SP: What is your advice to other underdog state prop efforts?
This can sound very cliché, but just follow your passion and follow the truth. We insisted on our truth. We didn’t go with one party or another, or smear our opponents. We didn’t say they were stoking hate, stoking tensions. No, we stuck to the basics. Whenever we got a chance, we used our facts to educate voters and members of the media. Educating is a very important – if not most important – component of a ballot-measure campaign.