JACK SPENCER: Pick your poison
On May 5 Michigan voters will have the chance to either approve or reject the road funding deal Gov. Rick Snyder and the legislature hashed out during the December lame duck session. All told, that deal is a $2.15 billion tax hike, which is considerably more than the $1.2 billion to $1.5 billion the Governor had been saying is needed for roads.
Many political observers believe the May 5 ballot proposal has little chance of passing. Early polling shows support for it to be weak; indicating that those trying to “sell” the proposal will be starting out in a hole. Yet, polling ballot proposals is a tricky business; and the May 5 election date could magnify that fact.
The centerpiece of Proposal 1, which is what the measure is officially called, is an increase in the State Sales tax from six to seven percent. Other aspects of the deal the voters will be deciding upon might be only vaguely referenced in the ballot language. Ironically, because of the way the deal was structured, the ballot language will say nothing about fixing the roads. None of these characteristics would be expected to help the proposal’s chances for passage.
However, the ballot language might end up not mattering much. It seems likely that most of the voters who participate in the May 5 election will have made up their minds about the proposal before they even see their ballots.
The voters’ perceptions about the proposal will be principally formed by the information they pick up through news sources, campaign messaging, word of mouth and social media. It’s apparent that the proposal will be promoted as providing funding to fix the state’s roads and bridges and making sure all taxes collected at the pump are used for this purpose. Beyond that, it could prove interesting to see what strategy those who want the proposal to pass decide to employ.
One distinct possibility is that there will be an effort to downplay the proposal — say little or nothing about it publicly or in TV and radio ads — until just prior to May 5. Meanwhile, the campaign for passage would work to get the word out, through the use of mailings and on websites, to targeted voting groups that might be expected to support the proposal. In other words, avoid reminding the general public that there’s an important election on May 5, while quietly making sure voters who would probably vote “yes” are reminded of it frequently.
Under certain circumstances such a strategy could work but its potential flaws might outweigh its advantages.
First, trying to keep voters unaware of, or to lull them into forgetting about, a statewide ballot proposal to increase taxes would not be an easy task. Voters have an uncanny ability to find out about attempted tax hikes, especially if there is any sort of effort — grass roots or otherwise — to make sure they are aware of them. Those who oppose the proposal need only repeatedly get the following words out “tax hike” and “May 5” to almost guarantee that the “no” voters won’t skip the election.
Second, getting large numbers of targeted likely “yes” voters to vote in the May 5 election would be easier said than done. State Democrats, with the aid of well-funded labor unions and other entities, tried every up-to-date electioneering technique available to boost their base turnout in November 2014; but the results were an abysmal failure. Though the Republican turnout was nothing to boast about, the Democratic turnout was even worse.
Apparently it takes more than clever ploys and well-conceived incentives to mobilize voters when they just aren’t excited about what they’d be voting for or against. And it is very difficult to envision droves of voters getting real excited about hiking their own taxes, even if they’re sick of potholes.
Say what you will about Gov. Snyder, it is clear that he is not your average politician. When he says he’s committed to “relentless positive action” he means it. That’s why there is a real possibility that the strategy used to try to pass the May 5 ballot proposal could end up being a relatively straight-forward attempt to sell the proposal to the voters.
This would be a “positive” campaign — backed by a lot of money — that declares a “yes” vote on May 5 means all taxes paid at the pump go toward fixing the roads — and the roads will get fixed.
If this ends up being the strategy, the Governor should be credited with openly taking his case directly to the voters, rather than trying to orchestrate which voters do and don’t turnout. All things considered, this kind of strategy probably has the same chance — less than 50 percent — of succeeding as any other would.
Keep in mind that in such a “positive” campaign, there would be no mention that the proposal is a $2.15 billion tax hike. But, after all, pointing that out will be the job of the news media and those who oppose the proposal.
Ultimately, all that really matters is that Michigan voters are aware of the May 5 election and know what the proposal would do. If those two elements are put in place, then there will be assurance that the will of the voters is going to prevail.
Jack Spencer is Capitol Affairs Specialist for Capitol Confidential, an online newsletter associated with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy (MCPP). MCPP provides policy analysis. The political analysis represented in this column does not necessarily reflect the views of the Mackinac Center.