Through Oct. 20, TV ad spending on ballot issues totaled roughly $119 million, including $11.3 million on local initiatives such as the one in Maui County.
Four of the five most expensive ballot initiatives feature at least one corporate patron duking it out over the airwaves, getting involved in the initiative process that was designed as a way to give voters a direct voice on public policies.
The two most expensive propositions were in California. Proposition 46 has drawn more than $23 million in ad spending, while Proposition 45 has attracted $20.5 million. Almost all of it has come from two groups: No on 45 — Californians Against Higher Healthcare Costs and No on 46 — Patients, Providers and Healthcare Insurers to Contain Health Costs. The “no” groups are backed by doctors and insurance companies, including The Doctors Company and Blue Shield of California, fighting to stop measures that would force doctors to undergo drug testing and insurers to get new approval for rate hikes, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of state campaign finance records.
Coming in third place was a Colorado amendment to expand gambling, which has drawn about $12 million in ad spending. Of that, $6.4 million came from Coloradans for Better Schools, a group backed by a Rhode Island casino company, Twin River Casino. Competing casinos in Colorado are helping fund $5.7 million in ads opposing the measure through a group called Don’t Turn Racetracks Into Casinos.
Ranking fourth were two California measures that have been touted as an inseparable duo: Proposition 1, which would authorize a bond issue for water infrastructure projects, and Proposition 2, which would change the state’s “rainy day fund.” Most of the $7.6 million spent on ads supporting the two measures came from California Gov. Jerry Brown. The Democrat has not run any ads for his re-election bid, instead buying $5.6 million in ads through his campaign committee to back the propositions.
Rounding out the top five, with $5 million in ads, was an Oregon measure that would require genetically modified foods to be labeled. The No on 92 Coalition, fueled by groups such as Monsanto and the J.M. Smucker Company, is battling natural food companies funding the Vote Yes on Measure 92 committee.
Fewer but costlier initiatives
This year voters have fewer ballot measures to decide than they did four years ago, when a comparable number of offices were up for election. In 2010, voters considered 184 statewide initiatives compared with 158 this year.
Even California voters, well acquainted with lengthy ballots, have only six measures to read through this November.
But this year already has 2010 beat in terms of TV ad spending. In 2010, ballot measure backers and opponents spent about $87 million on ads for the entire election cycle, compared with this year’s $119 million through Oct. 20.
Citizens in 26 states can gather signatures and put a proposal on the ballot that would create a new law or veto an existing one. Every state but Delaware offers voters the chance to weigh in on constitutional amendments approved by the legislature. Once the initiative is approved to go before voters, the ad deluge begins.
Ballot measure opponents and supporters use a number of tools to influence voters — door-knocking, direct mail, digital advertising and more — but television spots have the highest profile influence on such direct democracy.
“TV ads are a very effective way of getting out a message,” said Daniel Smith, a University of Florida professor who has studied ballot measures for more than 20 years. Advertising can be used “devastatingly well,” he added.
But those ads — and the money behind them — aren’t necessarily a bad thing if it gets people talking, he said, even if a few of them are confusing or misleading. “Increased money usually means there is more information, more awareness of ballot measures,” he added.
Corporate titans rule the airwaves
In California, competing messages about the drug-testing-for-doctors proposition are abundant on the airwaves. Recent transplant James VanBuskirk, a 34-year-old marketer for a property insurance company, says he sees one every time he watches prime-time TV.
Prop 46 tops the ballot measure spending pile in this election, with $23 million spent on thousands of ads across California.
Consumer Watchdog, a national advocacy group, teamed up with trial lawyers to back the measure. Trial lawyers stand to benefit from Prop 46 because, in addition to testing doctors for drug use, it also increases the maximum judges can award for pain and suffering in medical malpractice lawsuits. Groups backed by them spent $3.9 million so far on ads supporting the measure.
Consumer advocates and the California Nurses Association have also thrown their money behind Proposition 45, which would require insurers to receive approval for rate hikes from the California insurance commissioner, an elected regulator. The ballot committee supporting the measure has spent more than $679,000 on ads so far.
But their messages have been crowded out by those of insurers and doctors, who are spending big to oppose both measures on the airwaves — with more than $38 million spent on ads so far, about $19 million on each measure — nearly a third of the total amount spent on ballot measure ads nationwide. And there are likely many more ads to come: Groups opposing the two measures together have raised more than $100 million, according to California campaign finance records.
“It’s definitely in the upper stratosphere of California fundraising,” said Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, a nonpartisan nonprofit that produces online voter guides.
That doesn’t mean the insurance companies are necessarily going to win. In 2010, a group backed by Pacific Gas & Electric Co. spent almost $14 million on ads supporting a ballot measure that would require local voter approval for any new government-backed utilities. The electric company lost, even though its opponents did not buy any airtime.