Many conservatives are unexcited about Mitt Romney's presidential candidacy, but Republicans are counting on them to come out to vote on issues like abortion and gay marriage, and perhaps tick the Romney box while at the polling station.
This tactic helped President George W. Bush win re-election in 2004. Ballot initiatives opposing same-sex marriage in 11 states tapped into the passion of conservative Christians and pushed him to a narrow victory. "If I were the Romney people, I would be working to get as many initiatives on state ballots as possible that will turn out state voters - a marriage initiative, something on pro-life or on gun rights," said Steve Deace, a nationally syndicated conservative Christian radio host.
This year, the number of ballot measures looks to be especially high in some of the swing states that will decide a close presidential election in November. Ohio could set a record for citizen-backed initiatives this year. Making their way to the ballot are measures on gay marriage, abortion restrictions and a provision that would let workers opt out of union membership and dues.
Florida's Republican-controlled legislature has proposed a state constitutional amendment that would overturn Obama's healthcare law, one that would lift a ban on direct public funding of churches and another that would ban public funding of abortions and health plans that cover abortions.
An amendment defining marriage as only between a man and woman is headed for a vote in New Mexico, and Nevada and Colorado are among several states that will consider an anti-abortion "personhood" amendment to give fertilized human eggs citizenship rights. With strong evidence that such measures pull more right-leaning "values voters" to the polls than liberals or moderates, that could be good news for Romney, and bad news for President Barack Obama.
"That might be what Romney is looking for. He's worried about getting evangelical support, but if he can use those issues on the ballot to gin up support from a demographic group that is skeptical of his political conservative credentials, then I think it might have an effect," said Daniel Smith, an expert on direct democracy at the University of Florida.
"They get people thinking about politics outside of the candidates' races and it may get people who are not terribly partisan to come out to vote," Smith said.
'VALUES VOTERS' VOTE ON VALUES, DEMOCRATS DON'T
There is strong evidence that certain kinds of ballot measures can boost candidates, particularly those who are conservative on social issues. "The people who are 'values voters' care more about this set of issues than the people who are not values voters," said Joshua Dyck, a political scientist at the University at Buffalo, the State University of New York.
North Carolina, Obama won by less than 1 percent in 2008, holds primary elections on Tuesday, but will also consider whether to amend the state constitution to define marriage as between one man and one woman and ban civil unions for both gay and straight couples. Recent polls show the measure has a good chance of passing.
Even a small increase in turnout generated by a ballot initiative could make the difference in what is expected to be a close election in November. But they also heighten the intensity of feelings about a campaign and, importantly, can serve to strongly identify one party with "values" issues. In 2000, Bush won the election but lost the popular vote, as aides said millions of evangelicals stayed home. In 2004, with anti-gay-marriage measures on the ballot in 11 states, the Republican president was re-elected by 2.5-percentage points.
In Ohio, whose 20 electoral votes pushed Bush over the top in 2004, the measure drew social conservatives who were unhappy with Bush over the Iraq war, but unwilling to vote for the Democrat John Kerry because of his liberal positions on social issues like same-sex marriage. "The gay marriage amendment was a perfect vehicle to get those people to turn out to vote and, while they were there, pull the lever for president. And the lesser of two evils, for them, was to vote for George W. Bush," said Ohio-based Democratic strategist Greg Haas. "If that initiative had not been on the ballot, John Kerry would have been elected president," Haas said.
There is a risk that conservative initiatives could pull in voters from the left as well as the right, or make the Republicans seem too extreme. Even voters in conservative Mississippi handily defeated a personhood amendment this year. There are at least 11 such amendments in the works, said Al Ortiz of Ballotpedia, which tracks ballot measures. "Every week it seems there's another personhood amendment out there," he said.
Romney has been stressing his strong opposition to abortion to ward off social conservatives' concern about his past support for abortion rights. But analysts say they expect the former Massachusetts governor to steer well clear of the "personhood" amendments, which are more extreme than his anti-abortion stance and would give Democrats too much fodder to paint the Republican as out of touch with the mainstream.
"You can bet your bottom dollar the Obama campaign will be messaging extremism in those states where 'personhood' is on the ballot," Smith said. "When that kind of measure is defeated in Mississippi, it should give Republicans pause as to whether or not they campaign on that issue."