SACRAMENTO -- It was midsummer 2006, and a Field Poll showed Californians favored an initiative for a stiff new tobacco tax by a 2-1 ratio.

Three months later, after tobacco companies poured in $66 million to fund a blistering TV ad campaign -- the last ad featuring a doctor in a white smock excoriating the initiative -- the proposition went down in flames.

Sound familiar?

After riding solid polls out of the gate in March, leading in one survey by 37 points, Proposition 29, the ballot measure that would raise taxes on cigarettes by $1 a pack to fund cancer research, looked like a sure thing. But that was before opponents -- using $46 million from tobacco giants Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds -- began waging an unrelenting TV and radio ad campaign, featuring the same doctor in a white smock.

A survey released Thursday by the Public Policy Institute of California showed Proposition 29's lead down to 11 points: 53 percent to 42 percent.

Though the measure still holds leads in most polls, the downward trajectory bodes ill for proponents heading into Tuesday's election.

Defeat, political analysts say, has been almost a certainty for ordinary citizens -- or merely less endowed campaigns -- who try to carry a ballot initiative past a powerful interest group with seemingly unlimited funds.

"The initiative system has biases in favor of groups that have money -- and of groups trying to stop something rather than pass

something," said Jack Pitney, a political-science professor at Claremont McKenna College. "If you can create doubts, you have a good chance of defeating a measure."

Come-from-behind wins in initiative battles are not the sole province of tobacco companies. Oil firms pulled off a major turnaround in 2006, too. Voters initially backed a ballot measure to slap a tax on oil companies to fund alternative-energy programs by a ratio of nearly 3-to-1 in an early-summer Public Policy Institute of California poll. But after the oil industry went to work, outspending proponents $93 million to $62 million, Proposition 87 went down to defeat.

In each instance, a maxim of California ballot measure politics was fulfilled: It's easier to defeat initiatives because cranky voters are inclined to vote no on measures, particularly those asking for money. And when a no campaign can throw bushels of cash into a race to dominate the airwaves with a message that gets practically ingrained in the public's consciousness, the odds are even worse for the yes side.

"They pound the message over and over and after a while, people lose track of the basic purpose of the measure and become troubled by the alleged negatives," said Tracy Westen, founder of the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies.

In the case of Proposition 29, opponents have steered the focus away from the central theme of the initiative: funding cancer research and potentially saving hundreds of thousands of lives by lowering the rate of smoking through higher tobacco taxes.

The yes side, which has received $10 million in campaign contributions from health organizations, has even had a tough time casting the campaign as being about tobacco companies trying to protect their profits. That's a potentially winning message in California that has gone largely unheeded -- because proponents simply haven't been on the air enough to crash through the barrier of public awareness.

"A good message isn't going to persuade people if they never hear it," Pitney said.

Instead, voters have been exposed mostly to the no side's notion -- which has been debunked by the measure's proponents -- of a vast, newly created government bureaucracy that allows unelected officials to spend taxpayer money out of state. Political analysts say the ad campaign is filled with buzz phrases meant to appeal to Californians' general distrust of government.

Once in a while, however, all the money in the world won't work.

The one advantage Proposition 29 proponents cling to is that "voters believe tobacco is bad, and they want fewer people to smoke," said Melissa Michelson, a political-science professor at Menlo College in Atherton.

"The advertising has definitely been very one-sided, but I don't know if that means the yes side has no shot. This is the sort of issue where people are not as likely to be influenced by the advertising of the no side because they'll have an underlying view on whether tobacco should be taxed more."

Indeed, there have been recent examples of voters rising up against powerful industries in ballot fights. In 2010, voters defeated initiatives backed by PG&E and Mercury Insurance, which outspent their opponents by spectacular margins.

Opponents of PG&E's Proposition 16 -- which would have made it harder for cities to go into the utility business -- had only $133,000 at their disposal against PG&E's $43 million, but prevailed. Opponents defeated Mercury's Proposition 17 -- which consumer groups said would have raised auto-insurance rates -- despite being outspent $13 million to $1.7 million.

But those underdogs had the power of the no vote on their side.

Contact Steven Harmon at 916-441-2101. Follow him at Read the Political Blotter at

Big money trumps early leads
A handful of California ballot initiative races in the past decade have proved that heavily financed opposition campaigns can overcome early deficits in the polls.

defeated What measure would have done Election Pro money Con money

27 Eliminate Citizen Redistricting Commission 2010 general $5.4 million $24.5 million

7 Require utilities to get more power from renewables 2008 general $9.3 million $29.8 million

75 Prevent unions from using dues for politics 2005 special $8.9 million $47.5 million

86 Increase cigarette taxes by $2.60 a pack 2006 general $16.5 million $66.4 million

87 Establish program to reduce oil consumption 2006 general $61.5 million $93 million

Source: Eric McGhee, fellow at Public Policy Institute of California

Big money trumps
early leads
A handful of California ballot initiative races in the past decade have proved that heavily financed opposition campaigns can overcome early deficits in the polls.
2010: Proposition 27
(to eliminate Citizen Redistricting Commission)
Pro money: $5.4 million
Con money: $24.5 million
2008: Proposition 7
(to require utilities to get more power from renewables)
Pro money: $9.3 million
Con money: $29.8 million
2005: Proposition 75
(to prevent unions from using dues for politics)
Pro money: $8.9 million
Con money: $47.5 million
2006: Proposition 86
(to increase cigarette taxes by $2.60 a pack)
Pro money: $16.5 million
Con money: $66.4 million
2006: Proposition 87
(to establish program to reduce oil consumption)
Pro money: $61.5 million
Con money: $93 million
Source: Eric McGhee, fellow at Public Policy Institute of California