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The Initiative Myth

There's a fascinating little paper out from Pew today on whether ballot initiatives really work as turnout-boosters in close elections. The impetus for the study is the fact that the Democrats are looking to copy the GOP's "success" with gay-marriage initiatives by ramping up their own minimum-wage initiatives.

Currently, such initiatives are on the ballot in Arizona, Missouri, Montana and Nevada -- and may be on their way in Ohio and Wyoming -- but is there any real reason to expect them to be effective?

Pew looks at the impact of gay-marriage initiatives in 2004 and concludes: not really. Pew writes:

Yes it's true that in 2004, all 11 same sex marriage ban ballot initiatives were approved by voters -- and by sizable margins, ranging from a 57% majority in Oregon to an 86% majority in Mississippi.

Yes, it's true that Bush carried nine of the 11 states where the gay marriage bans were on the ballot in 2004. But it's also true that, unaided by gay marriage ban initiatives, Bush won those same nine states in 2000.

Yes, it's true that, in the aggregate, Bush increased his percentage of the vote in those 11 states by two percentage points between 2000 and 2004. But across all 50 states, he upped his percentage of the vote by three percentage points.

And yes, it's true that turnout spiked in those 11 states by 18.4% between 2000 and 2004. But nationwide, turnout was up by nearly as much -- 16%. And in Red America (the 31 states that Bush carried in 2004), turnout was up a bit more -- 18.9%.

In short, toting up all these numbers, it seems safe to say that the 11 gay marriage initiatives had no across-the-board impact on the 2004 presidential race.

Pew makes one exception: Ohio was so close (Bush won with 51 percent), that it's hard to say any one factor didn't tip the scale. And, of course, if Ohio had gone the other way, so would have the Electoral College -- no small matter.

But, overall, I think this Pew paper confirms what's been obvious since the smoke cleared after 2004. Despite the loud proclamations from "values voters" that they had won Bush his reelection, national security was far-and-away the decisive issue. And I don't particularly buy that the gay-marriage initiative tipped the scale even in Ohio. The Bush ground game there, particularly with black churches, was very aggressive. (But I'd be interested to hear from anyone with real, solid proof it was gay marriage.)

But back to those minimum-wage initiatives. Can they drive turn out? Well, 67 percent of Democrats consider the minimum wage "very important" as an issue; only 43 percent of Republicans consider gay marriage "very important." So, theoretically, it should have an even bigger impact (bigger than zero, that is, if you believe the first part of Pew's analysis).

Still, I don't really buy this. If an explosive, headline-grabbing issue like gay marriage made essentially zero difference, why would a wonkier, less emotional issue get new, Democratic-leaning voters out to the polls? There would have to be some real intensity of feeling about the minimum wage out there in the countryside for this to make a difference.

The minimum wage enjoys widespread (if wrongheaded) support. But I don't think it runs very deep or is the basis for too much excitement.