Passing California’s Proposition 5
The inside story of how the Indian Gaming Initiative won despite big-time opposition
Opposition to the Indian Gaming Initiative ultimately included a broad range of unusual allies – GOP Gov. Pete Wilson, labor unions, business groups, California’s horse racing industry and card clubs, Nevada gaming interests, the religious right and anti-gambling groups.
According to the early handicapping of California’s ballot propositions, Prop 5, the Indian Gaming Initiative, was supposed to lose. The story of how this would-be loser was turned into 1998’s most significant ballot winner is an intriguing case study of political strategy and campaign management.
From the start, the “Yes on 5” campaign team knew an initiative to protect Indian gaming would face highly motivated, well-funded opposition. That opposition ultimately included a broad range of unusual allies – the administration of GOP Gov. Pete Wilson, labor unions, business groups, California’s horse racing industry and card clubs, Nevada gaming interests, the religious right and anti-gambling groups.
Furthermore, Proposition 5 called for a “Yes” vote on a controversial issue – an outcome that has proven historically difficult to achieve. Conventional wisdom is that a “Yes” vote requires initial public support of between 60 percent and 70 percent if a measure is to pass against a well-organized opposition campaign. Early opinion research placed the percentage of support for the measure in the low 50s.
In fact, so serious and numerous were the hurdles facing Proposition 5 that in July 1998, Harry Curtis, a senior equity analyst for the BancAmerica Robertson Stephens Gaming Industry Report, said, “In our opinion, there is a one-in-eight chance it will pass.”
But by the time Prop 5 was approved by voters on November 3, its place in history was guaranteed. Combined, proponents and opponents of the measure spent the greatest amount of money in national ballot initiative history – an unprecedented $100 million. And in spite of all predictions to the contrary, it won – and won by a substantial 63 percent to 37 percent margin.
Gaming on California Indian reservations was first regulated after Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act in 1988. This legislation requires gaming tribes to have treaties (called compacts) with their respective state governments specifying the types of gaming permitted on reservation lands. In California, negotiation of these compacts had dragged on for several years, even as certain Indian casinos began operating with various card games, bingo and video gaming devices.
By mid-1997, the gaming tribes and Wilson were at an impasse, particularly over the tribes’ desire to keep video gaming machines. The continuing impasse raised the specter that without a compact for each gaming tribe, the federal government – at the state’s behest – might shut down the machines that were providing tribes with about 80 percent of their gaming revenues. Further complicating the picture were a few tribes, as yet to have gaming, who were amenable to the “Pala” compact proposed by Wilson which restricted the number and type of gaming machines.
The Go Decision
With their sovereign rights and livelihood under attack, several gaming tribes began exploring the possibility of a ’98 ballot initiative to resolve the stalemate with the governor. In December of ’97, gaming tribes led by the Morongo Band of Mission Indians and the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians commissioned Winner/Wagner & Mandabach Campaigns to study the issue and advise them on the feasibility of a campaign.
As part of this feasibility study, our firm, Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin & Associates, conducted detailed studies of voter opinion. They revealed that while there was just marginal public support for an initiative to protect existing types of gaming on California’s tribal lands, a significant majority of voters were not opposed to gambling per se, and supported Indian tribes having casinos on their own land. Winner/Wagner & Mandabach consulted with us regarding the research results and their implications. Then, they advised the tribes that there was a reasonable chance of success – if they could commit to putting on an intensive, highly focused campaign.
And commit they did. Thirty gaming and non-gaming tribes (a number which eventually grew to 88) joined the Prop 5 coalition, in what for many of them had literally become a battle for survival. Mary Ann Martin Andreas, chairwoman of the Morongo Band of Mission Indians, described the decision to proceed this way: “We felt we were running out of options and our backs were really against a wall. We had to go forward if we were going to secure our future.”
With slightly less than a month until the petition-filing deadline, the campaign launched an all-out signature drive. Using a unique combination of direct mail, standard signature gathering activities and supportive television advertising, the effort garnered more than a million signatures in 28 days, qualifying the measure in record time.
The strategic importance of unanimity among the Indian tribes – those with and without gaming – was crucial. As a result, the gaming tribes’ leadership undertook an intensive effort to enlist active support for the proposition from as many California Indian tribes as possible. Ultimately, 88 tribes joined the Initiative cause, allowing the campaign to say “96 percent of all Indians living on California’s reservations ask you to vote Yes on Proposition 5.” Other key elements of the communications strategy included:
* Inoculating the public early against opponent messages. The decision was made not to attack the federal government, the California legislature or Wilson, despite his failure to negotiate satisfactory compacts with gaming tribes. Instead, proposition supporters would focus on Nevada gambling interests as the opposition – a decision Ken Ramirez, Prop 5’s campaign chairman and vice chairman of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, described as “smart strategy and rooted in the facts.” By characterizing the opposition as “big Nevada casinos” ready to spend millions to kill off competition from Indian gaming, the campaign was able to poison the opponents’ “message well” at the outset.
* Positioning the gaming issue as one of “Indian self-reliance.” The Prop 5 campaign characterized Indian gaming as the means tribes were using to lift themselves out of poverty and isolation and toward becoming economically independent members of society. Anchored in the bedrock of the American ethic of self-determination, pro-5 ad messages highlighted Indian efforts to achieve self-reliance, as contrasted with the Nevada casinos’ desire to eliminate competition.
* Using Indian spokespersons to deliver messages with emotional content. Prop 5’s ads relied on simple, emotional messages delivered directly by tribal members. Mark Macarro, chairman of the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Mission Indians, was chosen as the primary campaign spokesperson. He became a recognizable symbol of the tribes’ dignity and strength, voicing trust in the voters’ ability to recognize the validity of the Indians’ position. As Ioanna Patringenaru would remark in The Los Angeles Times opinion section, “The steady stream of Yes ads, starring eloquent Native Americans and beautiful western landscapes, captured the imagination of political writers up and down the state.”
* Implementing an “immediate response” strategy. Most ballot measure campaigns strive to stay on message, never giving the opponents’ arguments a second airing through direct rebuttal. But research showed the opposition’s messages were potentially very strong, so as Paul Mandabach, president of Winner/Wagner & Mandabach, put it, “We had to break with conventional wisdom, and commit to rebuttal ads. We opted for the strategy of never letting our opponents gain even a toehold of credibility.” Consequently, the pro-5 campaign countered, swiftly and directly, any claim, argument or assertion the opposition made.
Its messenger, “big Nevada casinos,” had been tainted by Prop 5’s early framing [TABULAR DATA OMITTED] of the issues. Now the campaign worked to show the fallacy of opposition messages while underscoring the motive behind them. The Yes on 5 campaign had rebuttal spots produced, tested and on the air with-in 48 hours following the initial airing of an opposition spot.
In addition to its direct counter spots, the Prop 5 campaign aired several proactive 30-second TV spots as well as a 15-minute documentary primarily on cable. The documentary used Indian scholars and tribal spokespersons to recount the history of California Indians, and showed modern day reservation Indians telling how gaming had changed their quality of life. As Chuck Winner, partner in the Winner/Wagner & Mandabach firm, noted “the documentary and the proactive spots were crucial in providing voters with a historical context and an understanding of why Prop 5’s passage was so important to California Indians.”
Finally, the gaming tribes engaged in an extensive grassroots campaign. Door hangers were hung; tribal members engaged voters in face-to-face conversations; and individual tribal members made persuasion phone calls nightly for months, thus bringing a personal Indian presence to thousands who had never met a Native American. Further, members of the tribes visited editorial boards and various organizations throughout the state to present the case for Prop 5 and obtain important third-party support.
The End Game
The occasional dip in Prop 5 support following some of the opponents’ advertising salvos led several analysts to predict the initiative’s defeat. One, Field Poll Director Mark DiCamillo, observed from their numbers, “These figures do not bode well for the measure. The trend usually continues when voters start to defect a month before election day. Undecided voters also have a tendency to vote no.” Nevertheless, the campaign’s voter tracking surveys continued to provide daily confirmation that the campaign’s strategy was on the right track.
On the eve of the election, internal polling showed Prop 5 with majorities or strong pluralities among every major voter group except archconservatives. In fact, support actually increased about 5 percent in the last five days, causing the San Diego Union Tribune to comment that, “Proposition 5 ran counter to historical trends, gathering momentum in the final weeks when contested initiatives usually lose support.”
In addition to our firm and Winner/Wagner & Mandabach, the pro-5 campaign team was ably supported by a team of consultants including Joe Shumate Associates, Michael Galizio, Steve Glazer, Leo Briones, Karen Waters, direct mail expert Mike Myers, opinion researchers Moore Methods and Opinion Dynamics and tribal consultants including Rod Wilson, Waltona Manion, Nicki Symington, Cerrell & Associates and the staff of the California Nations Indian Gaming Association.
Although Robert Stern, from the Center for Governmental Studies, praised the campaign for running “one of the classic campaigns of all time,” in the end, the real credit for the proposition success goes to the Indian tribes themselves. They put all they had on the line for their cause, and the public responded by providing them with an overwhelming victory.
As is the case with most significant ballot propositions in California, Prop 5’s constitutionality has been challenged in the courts. Whatever the final outcome of this litigation, Prop 5’s passage signals the California electorate’s strong endorsement of Indian gaming.
Richard Maullin is a principal with Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin & Associates, a California-based polling and Democratic consulting firm.
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