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November 04, 2014

One dream of the Progressives of a century ago was to institute the referendum process in states so that the people could act for or override a state government that would forsake their concerns in favor of special interests. It was a nice idea but a hundred years later we don’t have policy by the people; we have policy by TV.

In the past several years scholars have been examining the impact of spending in referenda campaigns and the news is not good for those of us still harboring gauzy views of the ballot as the people’s policy tribune.

Two recent studies by Thomas Stratman, and another by John M. DeFigueirido, Chang Ho Ji, and Thad Kousser show that support and opposition spending on ballot measures has a strong and statistically significant impact on chance of passage. Stratman focused not just on campaign spending but upon sums spent on media advertisements, a better measure of voters’ exposure to arguments. He found that one-sided spending substantially favors the side able to outspend opponents.

So put aside all those arguments about morality, jobs, environmental cleanups, gambling addiction, etc. because here is all you need to know about the casino ballot measure, from the Boston Globe’s Mark Arsenault in Casino backers spend heavily on TV ads:

Pro-casino television ads by an industry -backed political group have run nearly 3,000 times on local broadcast stations, while underfunded gambling opponents have so far been unable to run even one television ad defending casino repeal, Question 3.

The one-sided ad war appears to correlate with a rise in public sentiment against repeal of the state casino law, according to Globe polls, and the casinos are not letting up: Three gambling companies with a stake in Massachusetts injected $4.5 million more into the campaign this month.

The casino-backed Coalition to Protect Mass Jobs has spent $6.2 million this year defending the casino law, about 15 times what opponents spent, according to campaign finance reports updated Monday.

If you are in favor of casinos and plan to finance your gambling ventures with five cent deposits under the new expanded bottle bill on the ballot, think again. According to the Office of Campaign and Political Finance, supporters of the ballot measure have raised about $1.5 million; but industry opponents have receipts of over $8.7 million. What the industry money bought wasn’t some direct descendant of the arguments presented in say The Federalist Papers but, says the Globe’s Tom Farragher, deceit.

All that industry (pro-casino and anti-bottle bill) money goes to TV and on these matters, which are of low salience and low visibility to the average voters, poll numbers and most often policy, follows TV.

So if you associate citizen power with the iconic Norman Rockwell painting Freedom of Speech in which all eyes turn to the rising working man speaking truth to power, it may be time to hide that print in the attic. In its place, may I suggest a dollar bill framed by a TV set?

money in politics, bottle bill, referendum, asinos

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