By Ben Goddard - 10/20/05 12:00 AM EDT
In a classic three-act screenplay, the hero establishes himself and his cause in the first act, is attacked and apparently defeated in the second act and then rises to triumph in the third act. The more Capraesque the script, the more the hero is “everyman” and the more grassroots his victory.
A few months ago, I wrote that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) had positioned his California ballot-issues campaign as one that called on voters to grab their pitchforks and torches and march on the fortresses of political power. The campaign hasn’t played out exactly as planned, for either side.
The governor’s team ran into stiff resistance from first-responder unions claiming one of his issues would eliminate their death benefits. Police and fire employees and their widows and orphans were not quite the “special interests” the governor wanted to take on. In the face of a blistering public-relations and advertising attack, he pulled the measure from the ballot, promising to retool the language to preserve those benefits for a ballot measure next year.
That left three reform measures. They would require the state to live within its means — forcing budget cuts if revenue fell — increase to five years the time required for teachers to achieve tenure and mandate congressional redistricting by an independent panel of judges. A fourth measure supported by the governor, although not placed on the ballot by him, would require a “check-off” before public-employee union dues could be used for political purposes.
Once filed, these measures launched a blistering attack from the opposition, led by teachers and other public-employee unions. To date, these groups have spent more than $108 million dollars to attack the governor and his package of four ballot measures. That is a lot of money, even by California standards. And what has it done to the governor’s standing and support for his ballot measures? Not much.
While support for Schwarzenegger initially slid, prompting a flurry of stories that compared the governor’s popularity to that of President Bush, the skid seems to have stopped. As for the measures, one public poll has all four winning with margins in the high 50s. Other public polls have not been as favorable, and some private polls show the measures nearly tied in the mid-40s, but with the yes vote leading.
So what happened to that $108 million dollars? A lot of it became confusing noise. The unions spent their money attacking Arnold. Problem is, he’s not on the ballot. While the no side has spots saying the governor is in an old- fashioned power grab, the yes side has teachers, union members and working families saying they support these reforms. Their unions may not, but you only need one teacher to make a commercial.
The no side has also made the classic mistake of changing its message too often. First it was “don’t silence us.” but that didn’t seem to resonate, so they switched to “we don’t need” a dues check-off, arguing members could already designate their dues to nonpolitical purposes. “Soooo …” voters wondered, “if it doesn’t change anything, why are you spending tens of millions of dollars to get me to vote no?” Now the message of the day is “they’ll take away your pension,” which takes their campaign in a whole new direction
Something else seems to be happening in California this year as well. Television has lost much of its potency to overuse. The torrent of anti-Schwarzenegger advertising seems to have turned off many voters, a lot of them Democrats. Predictions are that turnout may be as low as 35 percent. The no side can’t afford that. Arnold’s Republican reform base voters are going to the polls because they have a mission.
To the degree Democrats and independents have been turned off with millions of dollars in negative advertising, it plays into Arnold’s hands. Virtually every Republican will vote for the entire slate of reforms. Many Democrats and independents like one or another of the measures. So while Arnold’s base is solid, his opponents may not be.
One final piece of fallout from the negative-advertising blitz is that there are signs it is creating an “Arnold the Underdog” backlash. If that is, indeed, the case, his opponents will have given the governor back the Frank Capra image he launched the campaign with. That would be a classic Hollywood Act III in this tumultuous political year.
Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants GC Strategic Advocacy.