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December 11, 2014

Last week in Defeating Death with Dignity: An Overview I suggested that three factors were important in opponents of the ballot measure narrowly defeating the referendum in 2012: money, message, and coalition politics. Today I’ll offer a bit more focus on the financial side, all based on my article “Defeating ‘Death with Dignity’: Morality and Message in a Massachusetts Referendum” in American Catholic Studies (gated).

                If the recent referenda on bottle bill expansion and legalization of casinos reminded us of anything, it is that money matters in a referendum campaign. This is all the more obvious when campaign spending is one-sided. The money advantage enjoyed by Death with Dignity opponents was a crucial factor in the defeat of the referendum, and that money came almost exclusively from Catholic sources.

Compassion and Choice and Dignity 2012, two groups formed to advance the ballot measure, raised just over $1.1 million. But two groups formed to oppose Death with Dignity raised nearly $5.5 million (three other opposition groups raised minimal amounts).The Committee Against Physician Assisted Suicide (CAPAS) raised over $4.7 million in its campaign. The largest contributions came from the Catholic Church or Catholic private independent institutions: St. John’s Seminary Corporation contributed $1 million; Boston Catholic Television Center $1 million (cash contribution); Roman Catholic Archbishop of Boston, $617,000; Knights of Columbus $450,000; The Catholic Association $420,000; Roman Catholic Bishop of Fall River, Massachusetts $50,000. Thirty-seven other Catholic dioceses made contributions in amounts from one hundred dollars to twenty-thousand dollars. The second substantial group formed to oppose Death with Dignity was Massachusetts Alliance Against Doctor Prescribed Suicide (MAADPS). The group raised about $730,000, with $475,000 of that contributed by Sean Fieler, a Catholic hedge fund manager from New Jersey.

Recent studies in political science by Stratman and by DeFigueirido, Ji, and 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 on television advertising substantially favors the side able to outspend opponents. In a study of ballot measures in California from 2000-2004, he used criteria of outspending by at least two to one and by at least $575,000. Adjusted for inflation, $575,000 in 2004 dollars would be about $700,000 in 2012 dollars.

Following Stratman’s focus on amounts spent of media advertising, the anti-DwD forces enjoyed a one-sided spending advantage over the proponents. CAPAS is recorded as spending $2,626,734 for advertising in the month before the voting. MAADPS added $432, 932 for television ads. Proponents from the group MA Compassion and Choice spent $408,000 for cable advertising and TV advertising. CAPAS alone outspent ballot measure proponents by almost six and one-half to one and over $2.2 million.

The spending disparity was covered in the media but the attribution of the money source to the Catholic Church went largely undiscussed until after the election. Three days before the November 6 vote, in “A life-or-death question divides,” Stephanie Ebbert of the Boston Globe noted money pouring in from Catholic sources in opposition. In a post-election article on November 8, in an article titled “A coalition of forces beat back Question 2,” Lisa Wangsness of the Globe identified the Catholic Church and affiliated givers as the source of the bulk of the opposition money. Given the lateness of the barrage of television advertising in the campaign, it’s likely that the public never focused on the source of the money behind the ads.

The campaign strategists hired by CAPAS were sophisticated in the timing of their advertising and in the messages conveyed. Was the lateness of the advertising campaign also designed to mute attention to the source of the money? It’s an interesting question because in Oregon, where physician assisted suicide has been upheld in two referenda, attacks on the Church as leader of the opposition have been resonant.

More on that, and on messaging and coalition politics, to come.

money in politics, Catholic Church, death with dignity

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