Initiative Campaigns

Date01 January 2009
Published date01 January 2009
Subject MatterArticles
American Politics Research
Volume 37 Number 1
January 2009 155-192
© 2009 Sage Publications
hosted at
Initiative Campaigns
Direct Democracy and
Voter Mobilization
Caroline J. Tolbert
Daniel C. Bowen
University of Iowa
Todd Donovan
Western Washington University
Previous research has found that the campaigns of candidates running for
office provide information to voters and can increase turnout. Scholarly
research has also found that states with initiatives and referendums appear-
ing on the ballot have higher voter turnout, especially in midterm elections.
However, actual initiative campaigns are rarely measured. Drawing on
national survey data and state contextual factors, we use a multilevel model-
ing strategy to test whether Americans are more likely to vote in recent
midterm and presidential elections when there is increased spending in ini-
tiative and candidate campaigns, as well as more frequent use of direct
democracy. The research includes a number of methodological advancements
from earlier work on turnout and direct democracy (including a control for
endogeneity) by restricting the analysis to initiative states only. The analysis
suggests initiative campaigns not only increase individual level turnout but
also especially benefit the lower educated.
Keywords: ballot initiatives and referenda; direct democracy; voter turnout;
mobilization; electoral campaigns; inequality
Mobilizing Voters With Campaigns
Although the literature has found that states with initiatives and referen-
dums on the ballot have higher voter turnout over time, the causal mecha-
nism for why direct democracy increases turnout is not well understood.
Studies documenting attitudinal and behavioral effects of direct democracy
156 American Politics Research
on citizens are built on hypotheses derived from theories of participatory
democracy (Barber, 1984; Pateman, 1970). These theorists contend that
if democratic institutions offer people greater opportunities to participate
in decisions, those institutions may have an “educative” effect on them
(D. A. Smith & Tolbert, 2004). Representative democracy allows citizens to
vote on who gets to make political decisions; ballot propositions go further
and offer the voters the possibility of directly making public policy. By hav-
ing more opportunities to act politically, citizens may learn to participate
more and to believe their participation has meaning.
Beyond opportunities to participate directly in political decision making,
ballot measures provide information to voters in the form of political cam-
paigns and attention in the mass media. Ballot measures concerning contro-
versial policy issues such as immigration, gay marriage, affirmative action,
term limits, or abortion rights generate their own campaigns, with televi-
sion, radio, and newspapers ads; professional campaign consultants; and
organized interests representing proponents and opponents that contact
potential voters (Bowler, Donovan, & Tolbert, 1998). Like candidate races,
issue elections generate free media coverage, paid media campaigns, and
grassroots mobilization efforts. Signature petition drives to qualify ballot
measures, legislative hearings, and court disputes may generate additional
media attention. We argue that initiative campaigns and the mass media
provide information and appeals to the electorate that can stimulate politi-
cal participation beyond an “educative effect.
Yet actual campaign activity is rarely measured in the literature. Most
research on the effects of initiatives has focused on whether citizens
reside in initiative states, with some research using the number of initia-
tives as an alternative measure. We know relatively little about the effects
of initiative campaigns on voter mobilization, or who is mobilized by
these campaigns, as most research is based on aggregate turnout data
from the American states.
The existing research is also subject to endogeneity concerns: The ini-
tiative is only available in 24 states, yet empirical tests always include all
50 states. Some have speculated the empirical effects of the initiative are
not caused by the process itself but due to some underlying similarity in the
states that have the initiative.
Finally, literature on the effect of initiatives on turnout rarely control for
spending in candidate races in a respondent’s state, whereas the robust liter-
ature on “campaign effects” focuses primarily on candidates and has rarely
bothered to measure issue campaigns. Any complete test of the impact of
initiatives on turnout needs to account for candidate campaign effects, and
any full understanding of campaign effects should address issue campaigns
that arise from ballot propositions as well as from political candidates.
In this article, we test if citizens exposed to ballot initiative campaigns, as
well as candidate campaigns, are more likely to vote. Spending on ballot ini-
tiatives and candidate races provides a measure of information in the political
environment, especially mass media advertising. This article links the litera-
ture on candidate campaign effects with studies of direct democracy’s effect
on turnout. A number of methodological advancements from earlier work on
turnout and direct democracy are employed, including a control for endogene-
ity by restricting the analysis to initiative states only. A main contribution is to
test whether direct democracy increases turnout at the individual level.
Do Issue and Candidate Campaigns Matter?
There is a robust debate in the literature as to whether campaigns matter
in increasing turnout. A number of studies have identified the positive
effects of electoral competition and candidate campaigns on turnout (Cox
& Munger, 1989; D. Hill & McKee, 2006; Holbrook, 1996; Holbrook &
McClurg, 2005; Jackson, 1997, 2002; Patterson & Caldeira, 1983).
Campaign expenditures from candidates in contested races translate into
activities that stimulate voters and thus increase turnout. Using aggregate
Federal Election Commission (FEC) campaign expenditures and state data
on turnout, Cox and Munger (1989) test whether expenditures in guberna-
torial, Senate, and House elections influence turnout in House elections,
controlling for vote margins. The authors find support for their hypothesis
that increased campaign expenditures improve aggregate turnout.
The turnout effects of candidate campaigns appear heightened in presiden-
tial elections. Holbrook and McClurg (2005) unveil solid evidence over time
that presidential campaign visits, presidential campaign media purchases, and
party transfers to the states positively increase aggregate state voter turnout.
Not only is voter turnout influenced by active presidential campaigns but also
core partisan groups are mobilized, although not by all campaign activities.
The campaigns and media effects associated with contested elections also
increase turnout in other nations (Blais & Dobrzynska, 1998).
The campaign literature generally does not distinguish between candi-
date campaigns and issue campaigns. Studies of battleground states and
presidential campaign effects are more common, whereas state-level cam-
paigns are studied less often (Jackson, 2002) and state-level ballot initiative
campaigns are usually ignored. Yet hundreds of initiatives and referendums
Tolbert et al. / Initiative Campaigns 157

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