In 2013, well-funded special interest groups organized a campaign to increase Colorado’s income tax on all wage earners, and abandon the state’s long-standing flat tax of 4.63%. Amendment 66 was a ballot initiative that took advantage of Colorado’s low bar to petition issues onto the general election ballot. Multiple labor unions and two out-of-state billionaires funded the pro-Amendment 66 campaign with more than $12 million. With little more than $100,000 to spend, Coloradans for Real Education Reform (CRER) faced a modern day David and Goliath scenario. But unlike David, whose material resources were limited to a simple rock and sling, CRER was able to capitalize on earned media, social media, and a network of grassroots advocates to overcome one of the most asymmetric campaign funding landscapes in the state’s history.
The goal of our media campaign was to defeat Amendment 66. While the goal was simple, the plan was complex. Research indicated that targeting the key demographic groups of working families and women, two groups still struggling through a weak economic recovery, could lead to a successful outcome. These middle class Coloradans simply could not afford to have more of their paychecks siphoned off to a spendthrift state government in the face of rising costs and stagnant wages. While the pro-66 campaign blanketed the airwaves, hung billboards, and covered busses with its messaging, the funding imbalance forced CRER to enact a disciplined approach, focusing on earned media, demographic targeting, and social media. If CRER was to succeed against a $12 million investment from its opponents, it was going to have to develop a strategic plan that pulled every communications lever within its reach, and execute flawlessly throughout the process.
When the Amendment 66 votes were tallied, the tax increase lost in a landslide. With little money of its own, and up against an opponent with more than $12 million to spend, CRER ran a disciplined media and communications campaign to win 66% – 34%. By leveraging earned media, social media, and grassroots support, CRER demonstrated that a disciplined and strategic campaign can win, even in the face of almost unsurmountable financial resources stacked against it.