Golden State Ballot Measure Is Only a Long Shot for GOP

by Stuart Rothenberg September 17, 2007 · 12:05 AM EDT

Political operatives from both sides of the aisle are buzzing about a GOP-inspired ballot measure in California that, if passed, would divvy up the state’s Electoral College votes by Congressional district, with only two electoral votes going to the winner of the statewide popular vote.

If it passes, the initiative could give the 2008 Republican presidential nominee as many as two dozen of the state’s 55 electoral votes, even if he gets trounced in the statewide vote. George W. Bush carried 22 of California’s 53 Congressional districts in 2004, meaning that he would have received 22 of the state’s Electoral College votes under the initiative’s method of dividing those votes.

How significant is that number? It would be comparable to swinging either Pennsylvania or Illinois, each of which has 21 electoral votes, from the Democratic to the GOP column. That’s certainly significant.

But while the initiative might make it to the June primary ballot, when little else of importance is expected to be before the voters and turnout is likely to be small, there is a good reason not to get too excited about it: The initiative’s prospects probably aren’t as good as they initially appear.

Yes, polling shows the measure has appeal. An August Field Poll showed 47 percent of registered voters saying they prefer changing to a district-by-district allocation of electoral votes, while 35 percent preferred the current winner-take-all approach. Democrats split almost evenly on the two alternatives, while a solid majority of Republicans and a plurality of independents favored the change.

But the hurdles for the initiative are many.

First, there is Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), who is less than enthusiastic about an initiative fight with strong partisan overtones. He has been trying to work with Democrats in Sacramento and sees an initiative battle over changing how the state awards electoral votes as damaging to his relationship with the Democratic-controlled Legislature.

Second is money. Veterans of the initiative process generally say it could cost Republicans $1.5 million to $2.5 million to get the 433,971 valid signatures needed to put the measure before the voters in June. That’s not a huge number for California, and it is very doable — but it’s only the start.

Once on the ballot, the measure would face a barrage of advertising from opponents, and Republicans might need to raise in excess of $10 million to give the measure a fighting chance of passage. One GOP insider involved with the effort says there is “a fair amount of donor interest” so far, but that hardly seems enough to raise what would be needed.

Maybe even more important, one top Washington-based GOP fundraiser I talked with recently said that while he was aware of the measure, he knew of no organized effort in the nation’s capital to raise money for the California fight. Party strategists agree that some of the financial muscle to support the initiative would need to come from Washington, D.C.

“It would be a tough sell with Arnold’s lack of enthusiasm,” said a Republican who has been a successful fundraiser for the party and GOP candidates about the difficulty in raising cash to support the initiative. That isn’t to say that D.C. fundraising could not be jump-started in the next couple of weeks, but so far, national Republican fundraisers aren’t energized.

Third, Democrats won’t sit idly by and allow the measure to pass. One group, Californians for Fair Election Reform, is airing two radio ads attacking the proposal, and Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean already has blasted the proposed ballot measure. It’s also possible that Democrats could well put a competing initiative on the ballot to draw support away from the GOP effort or to confuse voters generally. And when voters are confused about ballot measures, they vote “no.”

“Election reform measures are so removed from everyday lives that they are incredibly difficult to pass,” notes Kristina Wilfore, executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, which monitors ballot measures for and works with “progressive” groups.

Fourth, Democrats seem entirely capable of raising the $20 million or more that they might need to defeat the measure at the polls. “National politics is a lot sexier than state politics,” said one Democratic strategist, who predicted “big money people in L.A. and San Francisco” would love to play in presidential politics.

Finally, the initiative probably isn’t starting with a high enough level of support to survive a campaign directed against it or voters’ general tendency to vote against initiatives.

The last electoral attempt to change the way a state’s electoral voters were distributed was a Democratic-backed attempt in Colorado in 2004. A survey less than two months before that election showed it leading with more than 50 percent of the vote, but on Election Day, the measure, which would have apportioned the state’s electoral votes proportionately, went down to defeat 65 percent to 35 percent.

A Democratic attempt in North Carolina earlier this year to change how the state distributes Electoral College votes was short-circuited when national Democratic strategists expressed fear that it would validate the Republicans’ California effort.

Republican strategists figure that if they can get the initiative on the ballot, anything could happen. At the least, it would force Democrats to spend money and energy to defeat it. So while the odds are against the initiative’s ultimate passage, Republicans are enjoying the trouble they are causing.