In 1976, environmentalists in the “Western Bloc” strategically worked to put anti-nuclear power ballot initiatives on the ballot in several states. They succeeded in getting anti-nuclear power measures on the ballot in Arizona, California, Colorado, Missouri, Montana, Oregon and Washington. The measures failed in all the states by wide margins except in Missouri, where it passed overwhelmingly.
Why did Missouri succeed while the others failed? Unlike the other initiatives, it was not an attempt to directly stop nuclear power or address the less popular issue of nuclear safety. It was directed at voters’ pocketbooks and attacked what was widely seen as an unfair practice. It banned Construction Work in Progress (CWIP) surcharges. These allowed utilities to charge rate payers to pay for the cost of constructing nuclear power plants before they produced any electricity. The initiative had the indirect effect of basically shutting down the construction of nuclear power plants by making their construction no long financially viable. From Citizen Lawmakers by David Schmidt:
In Missouri, even people who had given little thought to the issue of nuclear safety were hopping mad about CWIP. A St. Louis environmentalist, Dee Aylward, organized a petition drive to put a “Ban CWIP” Initiative on the ballot even though she had never been an activist leader. The utilities spent about a million dollars fruitlessly trying to persuade Missourians to reject the Initiative – 28 times as much as proponents. Four months after voters passed the Initiative, Missouri’s Union Electric Company abruptly halted construction on its Callaway Nuclear Unit 2, never to start again.
Seeing the effectiveness of the CWIP ban, Oregonians put a similar Initiative on their state ballot in 1978 and passed it by an even bigger margin than Missourians.
Other ballot measures that gave voters the right to veto proposed nuclear plants and that required voter approval of bonds to finance nuclear power plants also succeeded. Meanwhile, even right after the Three Mile Island disaster, initiatives for tough new safety requirements and to completely ban nuclear power failed.
While it was not possible to get majority support for efforts to put a ban on nuclear power or put in place tough regulations, it was possible to get broad support to end the unpopular practices that made nuclear power financially viable for companies. Often making a business practice unprofitable is as effective at stopping it as an outright ban would be.
The lesson is don’t let your commitment to a particular mechanism get in the way of achieving your true goals. Sometimes you need to look for your opponents’ Achilles’ heel by focusing on a connected/dependent issue that has broad support beyond your traditional allies. Finding and eliminating that one highly unpopular practice can be like removing the base from a house of cards. With a single highly focused action, you can bring the whole thing down. If you can find the framing that gives your campaign broad support outside of any particular ideology, you often find your way to victory.