“Keep your hand-wringing to yourself.”
This was one of the earliest, best pieces of advice I got in political strategy: No matter your personal ambivalence when advocating for a political cause, it is important to embrace the positive and minimize the negative. It’s a sound idea. Voters, like any humans, want to feel confident when endorsing change. Voters know that no solution is perfect, but an anxious voter is probably a “no” voter. People are risk-averse, the strategic thinking goes, and instilling ambivalence is doing your opponents' work for them.
It’s interesting, then, that the campaign to raise revenue through a newly formed King County Transportation Benefit District (KCTBD) is choosing to brace outspoken ambivalence.
The measure will be on the April 22 election ballot for voters in King County. They will be deciding whether to raise taxes to support transit — mainly existing levels of Metro bus service — as well as to provide some additional support to cities' road maintenance and bridge repair work.
KCTBD Proposition 1 supporters concede that both the $60 Vehicle License Fee and 0.1 percent sales tax increase will be strongly regressive, falling more heavily on people of modest means. Even with the proposed introduction of a low-income fare and the availability of a low-income Vehicle License Fee rebate, Proposition 1 is not anyone’s favorite option. Proponents labeled the idea “Plan B” from the start. Indeed, I have yet to see an elected official speak in favor of the April 22 ballot measure without bemoaning the Legislature for failing to act on transportation, in effect tying the locals to an option that involves regressive taxation.
In another situation, this might be the sign of a campaign lost in a death spiral of negativity. That has certainly happened before. The Puget Sound area is 2-for-4 on passing regional transit measures in the past 20 years. A 2011 Seattle measure, also including $60 licensing fees (car tabs), easily failed. Much of the measure’s stumbling was because of opposition from progressive groups who felt it exacerbated inequities in the tax structure. Entering the November election hobbled with only mixed progressive support, the measure, Seattle's Proposition 1, went down 56 to 44 percent.
Is 2014’s KCTBD Proposition 1 doomed to a similar fate? It depends which evidence you prioritize, but I think not.
To understand why, consider the past failures of past. One of my favorite campaign post-mortems is Ben Schiendelman’s thoughtful analysis of 2011’s bloodied Proposition 1. Schiendelman, a supporter of both the 2011 Seatle Proposition 1 and this year’s, argued that ballot measures usually come down to a simple question: “How much will I get, and how much will I pay?” In the “get” category, voters want focused benefits — specific, relatable improvements in their community; in the “pay” category, voters are more tolerant of costs that are gradual, subtle and/or diluted. This follows the conventional political wisdom from before: Articulate the positives well, and leave it to your opponent to muddy the waters.
The good news for the Prop. 1 supporters this year is that the “get” category is being handled winningly. Left-leaning groups —transit riders, environmentalists, social service advocates, and Democrats – are undivided in their support. That wasn’t true in 2011. Also much-improved is the clarity on affected projects. Protecting pre-existing local bus service is a lot more concrete than long-term infrastructure and road development. That distinguishes KCTBD Prop. 1 from previous failures, which were criticized either or ambiguity (2011’s Seattle TBD Prop. 1), or for being too unfocused (2007’s Sound Transit Prop. 1).
No doubt the “pay” side is tougher for KCTBD Prop. 1 supporters. Sales tax and car tabs are very concrete costs. Voters notice them, and know that they’re regressive. However, by pre-empting these concerns and aligning liberal groups early, the KCTBD Prop. 1 campaign seems to have taken the wind out of the opposition sails. Indeed, so far no organized opposition has even materialized. Even if the “pay” side is concrete, it will be hard to ding KCTBD Prop. 1 without institutional backing.
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