Winning Transit Referenda

The late Paul Weyrich founded the conservative Heritage Foundation and The Free Congress Foundation think tanks. He was also one of the architects of the Religious Right in the 1970s. Weyrich was a man who knew how to organize activists and get out the vote.

Weyrich honed his political activism through rail transit advocacy. In 2005, he published “Winning Transit Referenda: Some Conservative Advice” with William Lind. In this guide to transit advocacy, he outlines the initial steps, how to talk to the public, fund raising, timing, the mechanics of winning, mobilizing, and so forth.

One of the more important lessons from Weyrich and Lind: Don’t assume you’ll win, even if opinion polls show a majority want transit.

First, you need to understand that a referendum is very different from an election between candidates. In an election between candidates, people may dislike both, but in the end voters have to vote for one of them, even if they choose the lesser of two weevils. In contrast, in a referendum, if voters have doubts they vote “no.”

This means that your opponents have an easier job than you do. All they have to do is create doubt. In contrast, you have to create certainty, or at least near-certainty, that your proposal is worth people’s tax dollars. Further, as we will discuss later, you have to organize your supporters, while your opponents can let the doubt they generate just go out there and do its thing.

Often, the proposal has had great initial support in opinion surveys, maybe 70%. But then the attacks start.

The proponents make the mistake of ignoring the charges instead of replying to them. By election day, that 70% has become maybe 40% and the referendum is lost.
The proponents took false comfort from the initial 70% support. They failed to understand that their support was broad but shallow.

We’re seeing that with High Speed Rail in California. Voters already passed the referendum through the passage of Proposition 1A in November 2008. Cities along the San Francisco Peninsula, though, are now filing lawsuits against the High Speed Rail Authority. Maybe there is a majority on the Peninsula who still support High Speed Rail, but don’t depend on that majority — organize, mobilize, and address the objections from the detractors, or the project will never get off the ground.

Read the full PDF: Winning Transit Referenda: Some Conservative Advice.


  1. That was surely the recent experience in St. Louis. The first time, in 2008, proponents for transit funding were certain they were on the side of truth and therefore would win (failed). In April 2010, nothing was taken for granted and it was all about mobilization of supporters – and they won by a large margin. Lesson learned.

  2. Thanks for this post! I'm one of the majority of Peninsula residents that do support HSR, but you wouldn't know it from attending city council meetings. Opponents don't think their opposition, spread half-truths and rely on scare tactics. It's a tough fight, but one that's worth winning if it means creating an electric, high-speed transit corridor on the Peninsula. I wish more residents would understand what this project would do, and not just oppose any change to the status quo.

  3. I took it for granted that we'd get to keep full weekday Caltrain service, and maybe Gilroy would get cut. So I worked on the weekend project instead.

    Since all the letters to Caltrain were for Gilroy service and Weekend service, Weekday service gets cut. Including train 236 which I take 2-3x per month and is very popular with Silicon Valley slackers – the last non local train on the schedule.

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