Presidents Council State Universities of Michigan (Now Michigan Association of State Universities)

Vote NO on Proposal 4

Goal: Create and execute a ballot initiative campaign to reject Proposal 4, a proposal by a coalition of health groups that wanted to remove control of state tobacco funds from elected state officials and earmark them for health care only. The funds at the time were being used to support higher education scholarships.

Notable Awards/Recognitions:
  • 2003 Public Relations Society of America Best of Silver Anvil award for best public relations campaign in the nation

The Presidents Council State Universities of Michigan asked David Waymire, then working for Marketing Resource Group, to develop and implement a campaign to oppose Proposal 4, a very popular plan proposed by health care groups to earmark tobacco settlement money for health care purposes.

We conducted an extensive review of the proposed amendment and surveyed 800 people to understand what messaging most effectively opposed the amendment. The survey found that a good government message – “public accountability for public dollars” – appealed even to proponents of the proposal. Instead of positioning the campaign as a battle of health care (hospitals) vs. higher education scholarships (universities), we successfully turned it into a battle of “unaccountable special interests against public control of state dollars.”

The proposal called for funding to go straight from the tobacco settlement into a 501(C)3 group controlled by hospitals, which would handle disbursements, not the Legislature and the governor. During our research, we determined that the group had not been formally established. We – the opposition – formed it, effectively showing that the funding would go to us if it were passed.

We highlighted this oversight in messaging, emphasizing that this constitutional amendment automatically handing out public money to private corporations without public oversight was simply bad policy.

Action Plan & Communication Overview:

Using our survey research, we identified a core audience of winnable voters and built a large coalition that would effectively appeal to them. The coalition was composed of trusted public figures and education groups who would benefit from the Legislature allocating some of the tobacco money to higher education. We organized a media strategy aimed at winning editorial support and controlling earned media for the last month of the campaign with a series of events that would bring together all our coalition partners, including leafleting at high school football games and similar activities. We developed a web page that contained information supporters could download and customize, including leaflets and a PowerPoint for use by speakers across the state. We held events and news conferences featuring trusted elected officials including longtime Democratic Attorney General Frank J. Kelly and well-known Republican State Senator Joe Schwarz, pushing the accountability and good government message.

  • We created what outside experts said was the most wide-ranging and effective political coalition organized in Michigan history, with over 200 statewide and local groups eventually involved.
  • Our coalition bridged partisan lines by including Republican Governor John Engler, Democratic Mayor of Detroit Kwame Kilpatrick, and many other political figures from both parties.
  • We won endorsements from all but two newspapers, even turning around several papers that had previously supported the proposal.
  • In the last six weeks of the campaign, we controlled the earned media, even as the proponents spent millions of dollars on television ads.
  • Before our campaign, surveys showed 70 percent support for the proposal. With two weeks to go, surveys predicted the proposal would pass with up to 60 percent support. On election day, voters rejected the proposal, with a resounding 67 percent voting “no.” As a result, government funds stayed in the hands of government decision makers, and Michigan’s universities were able to retain their funding for scholarships and other programs.

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