June 22, 2012

Stanton A. Glantz, PhD

AP calls Prop 29; gives win to Philip Morris and Reynolds

I just got a call from AP saying that they are calling the race for Big Tobacco.

I was a little surprised that they did this at this point in time.  There are wide differences in the responses by county, which makes predictions of the outcome complicated.  I have developed a statistical model that predicts the votes since the election from those on election night.  (The post-election counts are systematically more for Prop 29 than the election day returns.)   The last projection I did (based on returns as of June 20) showed Prop 29 losing by .31%,  with 49.85% yes vs 50.15% no) or 15,861 out of 5,129,712 votes.

This difference was, however, well within the statistical margin of error.

Here is what I told AP by way of reaction:

1. Both the Secretary of State and the health groups should carefully consider whether or not a recount is in order.  (It the Secretary of State orders it, the state pays; if the health groups request it, they have to pay.)  This is a complicated question, but given how close it is, the cost of a recount might be worth it.  (If, at the last minute, Philip Morris and Reynolds lose, you can be sure they will demand a recount.)

2.  If 29 does indeed loose, we should try again with an improved initiative.  I think that 29 was reasonably well-conceived but there is definite room for improvement, such as adding "in California" a bunch more times.  (I am in the process of developing a tightened up suggested language based on our research on all the other tax initiative campaigns).  I know that this is scary for the sponsors who would have to come up with the money, but we just can't let down all the people who worked so hard on this campaign.

3.  There is a small chance that a tobacco tax might pass in the Legislature, depending on what happens with the new "top two" primary system in California that might lead to less radically anti-tax (and pro-tobacco) Republican minority in California.  (For people who live outside California, it takes 2/3 to pass taxes in the Legislature, which gives the Republican minority veto power over taxes.)  The California legislature has been even less willing to raise tobacco taxes than tobacco growing states.  I would support a state increase in the tobacco tax as long as it included a reasonable allocation to reinvigorate the state tobacco control program.

In terms of the reasons for the loss, assuming that is what happens (or even if 29 narrowly wins), the prime credit goes to the LA Times, which wrote an editorial that parroted Philip Morris and Reynolds' position that the money should go to the general fund.  (See my earlier commentary on this point.)  It is not often that a newspaper can have such a major effect on life-and-death events.  The LA Times should be ashamed of itself.  Their ill considered position will mean a lot of people will die early.

Other secondary (and much smaller) reasons for the outcome:

My second reason for the loss is the very weak media campaign that the Yes on 29 campaign ran.  Rather than taking on Big Tobacco, they tried to sell cancer research.  Our earlier work shows that this was not the way to got from the beginning.  (Lest people think I am Monday morning quarterbacking, I still have the email I sent the Yes campaign when they sent me the script for their ad the night before I did the taping to appear in the ad telling them they would lose with that message.)  Very late in the campaign they did make a stronger 15 second ad, but it didn't get much air time.

Finally, I think that the media coverage fell into the trap set by Philip Morris and Reynolds to portray the opposition as coming from industry-funded groups like the California Taxpayers Association and California Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.  The media should have called Philip Morris and Reynolds for comment and, if they reduced comment, not moved on to  these front groups.  There were only two stories that peeled back this facade -- one by Dan Morain at the Sacramento Bee and one by Stephen Stock at NBC Bay AreaThe fact that the industry was able to stay relatively hidden and still get its message out was key to them doing as well as they did.  Stock even found a memo in the industry documents making this point explicitly.

A few things that I think did not think matter:

The fact that the election was on the June ballot, which had a low turnout.  A high turnout might have helped, but the November ballot is very crowded, including two general tax increases.

The proposal itself.  While, as noted above, Prop 29 could have been better, it was not the problem.

The amount of money the yes side had.  While all campaigns can always use more money, I think that the Yes campaign had enough money, particularly if they had run stronger media and been able to get the money a little sooner so that Philip Morris and Reynolds would not have had the airwaves to themselves for so long.  (By the way, the American Cancer Society deserves special credit for the major financial commitment they made to  the campaign.)

I have been at this a long time and the proper response to a squeaker like this is to come back quickly and strongly.  I hope that the health groups are not discouraged and do so while the huge grassroots movement build to support Proposition 29 is still intact.  People are mad and need a productive focus for their energy.

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