Don’t expect any coattails in California (from candidates or propositions)
October 30, 2008
The expectation among supporters of Proposition 8, the ballot initiative aiming to deprive same-sex couples of their newly-won right to marry, is that their measure stands a better chance of passage because Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama may draw many thousands of new African American and Hispanic voters to the polls.
Those ethnic groups, the thinking goes, are more hostile to homosexuality than whites, so getting them out to vote will help Propostion 8.
The expectation, then, is for a classic coattail effect.
Meanwhile, Republican presidential candidate John McCain early on pinned whatever slim hopes he had of carrying California on the idea that great numbers of conservative voters would turn out to support both Proposition 8 and the Proposition 4 attempt to require parental notification prior to abortions for teenage girls. That would be a different sort of coattail effect.
Two problems with all this: First, there is no strong evidence that blacks and Latinos are less supportive of gay rights than anyone else, and second, there is virtually no history in California of any candidate or proposition having any coattails at all. The lone significant modern exception to this came in 1994, when then-Gov. Pete Wilson virtually combined his reelection campaign with the drive to pass Proposition 187, an attempt to deprive illegal immigrants of virtually all government services from schools to emergency room care that was later thrown out by federal courts.
There is virtually no evidence that California voters in any other instance have linked ballot contests to one another, even when they turn up in immediate sequence on the ballot. The best example of how voters see each race as completely separate came in 1980, when Republican Ronald Reagan carried the state by a 24 percent margin, but Democrat Alan Cranston was reelected to the U.S. Senate by 18 percent. The two matchups were listed first and second on that fall’s ballot.
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But these realities never stop candidates and backers of propositions from hoping.
One who figures he’ll benefit greatly if Proposition 8 loses is San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, who isn’t even on the ballot this year, but has been an unwitting foil in pro-8 TV and radio commercials. Newsom, seeking the 2010 Democratic nomination for governor, pioneered the gay marriage phenomenon when in 2004 he ordered his city clerk to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. That order was later cancelled by lower courts, but was vindicated last spring by the state Supreme Court.
“I’m convinced it is plain foolhardy to campaign in tandem with propositions,” says Garry South, the longtime Democratic campaign manager who has engineered two successful runs for governor and is now advising Newsom. “But associating himself with the opposition to Proposition 8 might be a little different in Newsom’s case because he’s the one who brought the issue to the fore. It kind of belongs to him.”
Not that other pols aren’t trying to get some benefits by association. Example A of this is Attorney General Jerry Brown, another 2010 Democratic hopeful. As part of his job, Brown was obliged to defend the existing state law that banned same-sex unions until the state Supreme Court decision, just because it was state law.
Handed the chance last summer to write a new ballot title for Proposition 8 after that decision, he did so with alacrity and the measure’s label now says it aims to eliminate an existing right ” something voters are usually loath to do.
“That was his chance to set himself right with the gay community, and he took advantage of it,” said South.
Backers of other measures plainly timed them to coincide with the presidential vote because they figured California voters will vote strongly Democratic ” and liberal ” next month. One is Proposition 2, the attempt to guarantee more humane conditions for farm animals from egg-laying chickens to veal calves and pregnant pigs.
But a big vote for Obama guarantees nothing for this initiative if opponents can convince voters it would produce higher food costs.
One reason for the lack of connection between ballot measures and candidates is that a lot of voters stop voting after they finish with the top human candidates. In the last statewide election, 8.68 million persons cast ballots for governor, but only 8.32 million voted for the first proposition on the ballot, the infrastructure bonds of No. 1A. That means more than 340,000 persons who voted for governor dropped out before reaching the propositions.
That’s more than enough to decide many tight initiative contests.
The bottom line: Any candidate or proposition sponsor who believes a strong vote for one person or issue guarantees anything for any other item on the ballot will almost certainly be in for a disappointment on Election Night.