Campaign funding paints David vs. Goliath story

Of all of the statewide ballot measures in the general election, Proposition 37 ended up being the tightest race. When final election results were tallied last Monday (Dec. 3), just 1.5 points stood in the way of its passing and forcing food manufacturers to label products containing genetically modified ingredients.

Yet there was an immense difference in the level of campaign support in terms of dollars. The Yes on 37 camp was outspent fivefold by the No on 37 camp’s $45.6 million war chest from corporate biochemical- and food-industry donors, such as PepsiCo, Bayer, Coca-Cola and Nestlé, and of course the biggest supporter by far, GMO giant Monsanto, whose contributions alone ($8.1 million) nearly equaled that of the entire budget of the Yes on 37 campaign ($8.9 million).

“We always knew we were the underdog and going up against some of the biggest chemical companies in the world, and many of them were foreign companies who aren’t allowed to grow in their own countries,” said Gary Ruskin, campaign manager of the Yes on 37 (California Right to Know) campaign.

Even still, early on passage of the measure appeared viable, thanks to a vigorous grassroots effort.

Support for the measure appeared solid as late as September, with 61 percent of voters in favor, according to a poll conducted jointly by the University of Southern California and the Los Angeles Times. However, by October that support had fallen by 17 percent.

Around that time, Dan Schnur, director of the poll and of the Unruh Institute of Politics at USC, explained the waning Yes-on-37 numbers.

“[T]he most significant driving force behind this shift is the amount of money that the opposition has put into the campaign,” Schnur said in a press release. “When voters hear a message so much more strongly from one side than the other, it’s not surprising to see the poll numbers move like this.”

At least part of the money paid for an opposition ad featuring Henry I. Miller, from the conservative Hoover Institution, that appeared to link the researcher to Stanford University, though the Hoover Institute is simply housed at Stanford and the university has a policy against endorsing candidates and ballot measures. The ad was edited to reflect those inaccuracies, including removing the campus from the background of the video, at Stanford’s request.

And that wasn’t the only misleading way in which the opponents attempted to sway voters, supporters charge. “The No campaign was stacked top to bottom with trickery, deception and falsehoods,” said Ruskin, who pointed to a list at www.carighttoknow.org of documented allegations of deception in the No on 37 campaign.

The good news in the wake of the defeat of Prop. 37, Ruskin said, is that the companies that opposed the measure eventually will have to cave in to the demands of their customers.

“These are highly consumer-driven companies,” he said. “Forty-eight percent [of the voting populace] said they want labels, and they should listen.”