Why the Anti-Tunnel Campaign Lost

By Sandeep Kaushik August 16, 2011

It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way. A few short months ago, as pro-tunnel backers fought -- and failed -- to keep a tunnel referendum off the ballot, the conventional wisdom was that Seattle voters would surely vote against the tunnel if they were given the chance for an up-or-down vote.

I shared that view. Polling showed that the tunnel is the first choice of only about 35 percent of Seattle voters. While downtown interests were united in supporting the tunnel, for a diverse array of reasons skepticism about the tunnel plan ran deep among the public. Seemingly all the anti-tunnel campaign needed to do was amplify those doubts to emerge victorious.

While they were always likely to be outspent by the pro-tunnel interests, they supposedly had an army of energized activists to take their message directly to doorsteps across the city. And after all, hadn’t Mike McGinn’s election as mayor proved that grassroots passion trumps establishment money in Seattle elections? At a June fundraiser for Dow Constantine, guests were asked to pick the outcomes of upcoming races. I guessed that Referendum 1 would go down to defeat, 54-46.

So what happened? The campaign happened. As the Let’s Move Forward pro-tunnel side ran an effective, disciplined campaign -- central message: tens years of debate is long enough, it is time to move forward -- the anti-tunnel forces floundered, making a series of strategic and tactical errors that damaged their cause.

Here, in my view, are the errors made by the anti-tunnel side:

1. They offered no credible path forward: Let’s begin at the beginning. From the outset, dating way back to McGinn’s campaign, surface-transit backers have attempted to win the Viaduct battle by adopting a “last option standing” political strategy. In other words, rather than doing the difficult work of convincing skeptical Seattle voters that surface-transit is a viable alternative to the tunnel, they hoped to kill the tunnel politically through a negative public vote (as a previous public vote killed the rebuild). They believed that would force, via a process of elimination, the adoption of a surface-transit plan, even if it remained even more unpopular than the tunnel with Seattle voters. [pullquote]Seattle voters, fatigued by the endless debates over the Viaduct, wanted to know what would come next before they voted no on the tunnel. Protect Seattle Now, the anti-tunnel campaign, never answered that question. In fact, they all but ran away from it.[/pullquote]

They got more or less what they wanted: a vote that could be characterized as a referendum on the tunnel. But this was not the home run strategy they thought it was. Seattle voters, fatigued by the endless debates over the Viaduct, wanted to know what would come next before they voted no on the tunnel. Protect Seattle Now, the anti-tunnel campaign, never answered that question. In fact, they all but ran away from it. They left the surface-transit idea off the ballot and out of their messaging.

Their voter guide statement promised that a no vote would lead to “a better solution” but they completely avoided even a hint of what that solution might be. That 8-page Protect Seattle Now insert in the Times? It begins with the all caps headline, “SEATTLE,
WE CAN DO BETTER THAN THIS,” but nowhere in the brochure did they provide any mention of what they meant by “better.”

Similarly, as Joel Connelly recently pointed out, at a recent City Club-PubliCola-sponsored debate tunnel opponent Mike O’Brien was asked, “Where is the clearly articulated plan for what the alternative is?” To which he responded: “It’s going to be done through a collaborative process in which we discuss stuff.” In voters’ minds, that became the alternative: endless debate and bickering, more Seattle process. Aside from the surface-transit option, that might be the one other thing Seattle voters like less than the tunnel. [pullquote]They believed that they would have won fewer votes if they were open about the solution they supported.[/pullquote]

2. They had trouble with messaging: as the campaign developed the anti-forces couldn’t seem to settle on a consistent no message. Should we vote no because of the cost overruns issue? Was it that the tunnel cost too much? Was it that the tunnel financing plan was incomplete and would lead to tax increases? Was it that the decision to move forward with the tunnel was a back room deal that subverted good public process? Was it (a false argument, but one they made) that the money could be diverted to funding higher priorities, like schools?

The closest Protect Seattle Now came to a consistent argument was their attack on tolling the tunnel. But as I have written previously, this argument, designed to win the support of older, more conservative voters, seemed like a cynical political ploy. It led these eco-green activists to echo Eymanesque talking points, an appallingly short-sighted move with negative long-term consequences for their urban environmental agenda. Other observers noticed the same thing.

3. They lacked credible messengers: Mayor Mike McGinn has long been the face of the anti-tunnel effort. But with his poll numbers slumping, McGinn went silent as the campaign progressed. The Protect Seattle Now forces lost their most prominent messenger, and they never found a replacement.

With McGinn sidelined, the rest of the Protect Seattle Now spokespeople were unknown to the wider Seattle electorate. And those spokespeople made some mistakes, playing into the stereotype that anti-tunnel activists are uncompromising zealots. One turning point: the KUOW segment where a Protect Seattle Now spokesperson denounced the prominent environmental leaders who supported the tunnel plan as “a few downtown interests who call themselves environmentalists” who “came out of nowhere.” The denunciation came across sounding like a Stalinistic demand for absolute ideological fealty. The campaign later apologized for the remarks but the damage was done.

And they never achieved that “Ron Sims moment” -- a turning point where a major elected official or other public figure unexpectedly broke ranks to oppose the tunnel, as Sims did with the 2007 Roads and Transit package. They received surprisingly few endorsements, outside the coterie of true believers (Real Change, the Stranger). The Democratic LDs, where progressive activists abound, went solidly pro-tunnel. The pro-side had a bit of Ron Sims moment when popular King County Executive Dow Constantine—for the tunnel along, actually—dramatically made a point of speaking out at a press conference alongside Governor Chris Gregoire and got up in the face of McGinn's surface/transit alternative, saying it wouldn't work and shifting the debate, putting the McGinn troops on the defensive.

4. They made it about themselves: Their silly, over the top campaign video, based on the Eminem Super Bowl Chrysler ad, says it all. Unwilling or incapable of offering a compelling alternative to the tunnel, the Protect Seattle Now campaign seemed to grow
increasingly self-referential and inward-focused, an exercise in true believers patting each other on the back for their purity. It became more a monument to their own virtue than a focused effort to convince the public. The video said much more about how the anti-tunnel activists saw themselves than it did about the tunnel plan.

5. The anti-tunnel ground game never materialized: The anti-tunnel forces knew from the outset that they would be heavily outspent during the campaign. But they promised that they would win anyway, because the people were ready to rise up in a grassroots movement to fight downtown interests. They constantly harped on the fact that 29,000 people signed the petitions to put Referendum 1 on the ballot, but neglected to mention that they only got them by spending $58,000 -- well over half of their total campaign funds -- on paid signature gatherers. If there was so much anti-tunnel volunteer enthusiasm, why did they have to spend so much to collect signatures?

The answer is that the boots on the ground never really existed, at least at the levels the anti-tunnel camp made it out to be. No one knocked on my door. No one I know mentioned being canvassed either. A broad small donor anti-tunnel base never materialized (nor for that matter did the anti-City Council incumbent backlash that McGinn spent so much time cultivating around the tunnel issue). Protect Seattle Now’s fundraising after they qualified for the ballot was anemic. Seattle voters may have been skeptical about the tunnel, but they didn’t hate it with the same level of obsessive passion that McGinn and his supporters did.

I’ll end by going back to the beginning. I wish surface-transit supporters had been more forthright, and put a measure on the ballot that offered a clear choice between their preferred option and the tunnel. I understand why they didn’t do that. They believed that they would have won fewer votes if they were open about the solution they supported. But they might have won mine.
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