Each month, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney — and their respective parties and PACs — report their fund-raising totals. One result is a monthly debate about the propriety of big money in politics, and many participants in that debate begin with the apparent assumption that money is everything in an election.
On the local level, however, we are watching the final days of a campaign in which a gilt Goliath appears mortally wounded by a dollar-poor David. Yes, I’m talking about the T-SPLOST.
The pro-tax campaign yesterday finally released its financial statements (on the last day of its past-due grace period), and it shows pretty much what we all expected: a campaign that has had millions of dollars to persuade voters to tax themselves $7.2 billion during the next 10 years to fund transportation. Here’s how the AJC summarized the standing of the pro- and anti-tax groups:
Citizens for Transportation Mobility — the political action committee pushing the July 31 transportation referendum in metro Atlanta — took in $6.5 million from spring 2011 through July 16, according to a campaign finance report filed Monday. Records show the group dramatically outraised opponents of the tax increase: The Transportation Leadership Coalition, which is fighting the referendum, raised $14,418.
(Full disclosure: Cox Enterprises, parent company of the AJC, donated $250,000 to the pro-tax campaign.)
That’s a 450-to-1 financial advantage for the pro-tax side, which is why virtually all the advertising you see about next week’s referendum is in support of the tax. The tax has the backing of the governor, the mayor of Atlanta and most other local and state elected officials in the 10-county region. It has the research apparatus of governmental and quasi-governmental agencies behind it. It has the area’s major businesses making not-so-subtle suggestions to their employees that they should vote for it.
And yet, according to every recent opinion poll, it’s trailing. In all but the one done for the pro-tax campaign itself, it’s trailing badly. In all that have measured support for the tax over time, that support has fallen by double-digits.
For starters, this campaign shows once again the effectiveness of real grassroots organizations, and their ability to tap into large networks of passionate supporters at little or no cost. When the Tea Party Patriots, NAACP and Sierra Club all decide to oppose something, their members tend to be much more firmly committed to that stance than are people swayed by advertising or political endorsements.
We must also acknowledge that any effort to increase taxes amid a still-stagnant economy is something of an uphill climb, even when the purported payoff — easier commutes — affects many people’s everyday lives. That said, the most believable poll two months ago was not one that showed the tax ahead or behind by double-digits, but the one that showed it at 42 percent for and 45 percent against, with the rest of the people undecided. Given the nature of Atlanta’s transportation needs, the referendum was bound to be close despite the economy and the low level of trust in government when it comes to transportation. (And, for the record, I still think it will be fairly very close in the end: single-digits either way.)
But the most important factor — and really the only way this campaign’s financing and evolution are similar to the presidential race — is the ability of those proposing a change to make their case clearly and effectively. Barack Obama’s approval ratings may still be mediocre, but all the money in the world won’t help Mitt Romney if he can’t convince the American people he is suitable alternative. Likewise, traffic in Atlanta may be exasperating for a lot of people, but all the money in the world won’t help the folks at Untie Atlanta if they don’t have a credible pitch about how the tax revenues will help reduce traffic congestion.
And that’s where I think the referendum is in danger of failing.
The message from the pro-tax side has gone something like this:
1. Traffic is bad.
2. Look, there are a lot of projects!
3. In the end, we have to do something.
While hardly anyone disputes Nos. 1 and 3, a great deal of people doubt No. 2 is an adequate bridge between them. To be honest, the pro-tax side has hardly tried to convince the doubters otherwise. It’s simply harped even more on Nos. 1 and 3.
That means there’s no clear, coherent message about how the T-SPLOST projects will help the region today, from the urban core to the suburbs. There is no consistent narrative about how the projects work together in a specific corridor or chokepoint. To the degree the message is something other than “trust us; it’ll work,” the message is the map with 157 projects scattered across it. And that map has become a regional Rorschach test that leaves it to individuals to see future relief or wasted money.
In large part, that’s the fault of the people who put the list together, not the ones now tasked with selling it to the public. But however the blame is eventually assigned if the referendum does indeed fail, that’s the central failure of the T-SPLOST — and the crucial task for whoever has to pick up the pieces if Plan B becomes necessary.
– By Kyle Wingfield