Polls Show Voters Did Not Support Privatization of Liquor Sales

Oregonians consistently said they opposed move to wrest booze sales from state agency.

Turns out Oregonians are pretty content to have the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, rather than grocery stores, sell hard liquor.

On Wednesday, Oregonians for Competition, the proponents of Initiative Petition 71, who sought to privatize the sale of hard liquor, dropped a bombshell: They were abandoning their campaign, despite having already raised $3.5 million from grocers and the Distilled Spirits Council to put an initiative on the November ballot. They'd already spent $1 million.

By way of explanation, they issued this statement:

That explanation is not quite the whole story.

WW obtained results from four polls—three commissioned by opponents of privatization and one taken last week by Our Oregon, the group seeking to pass Initiative Petition 28, a corporate tax increase later this year.

Here's what the polls showed.

March 2014: Fifty-seven percent of those polled favored preserving the current, state-run system. Thirty-two percent opposed it. The poll by G2 Strategies for privatization opponents surveyed 500 people.

(Proponents failed to qualify a liquor privatization measure for the ballot in 2014, despite spending $2.5 million.)

November 2015: A month after privatization proponents said they were pointing toward the 2016 ballot, opponents asked the same question. This time, the same pollster surveying the same number of people got a slightly different answer: 57 percent favored the status quo, 38 percent opposed.

February 2016: After Oregonians for Competition had reported raising a couple of million dollars, opponents polled again, this time using GS Strategy Group to survey 400 voters. The question this time mirrored likely November 2016 ballot language. "Allows qualified retail stores to sell liquor; prohibits state liquor sales, distribution eliminates liquor revenue." The answer this time: "No," 52 percent; "Yes," 37 percent.

April 2016: Our Oregon hired GBA Strategies to poll on questions primarily related to the passage of a corporate tax increase but also asked 800 voters about the liquor privatization language. The results: 54 percent said "no"; 41 percent said "yes."

It's a electoral rule of thumb in Oregon that if you want to persuade voters to change the status quo, you need to start with 60 percent or so on your side because the "no change" campaign, no matter what the question, will play effective defense. It appears that despite voters' mistrust of government, including the OLCC, Oregonians for Competition was nowhere near the threshold for success.

Oregon grocers are tantalized by the 2012 privatization of Washington's state-run system, which happened after Costco spent more than $20 million to support an initiative.

The results of privatization up north have been mixed. Consumers can shop at five times as many outlets and for many more hours but often pay higher prices.

Asked about the polling that shows Oregon voters do not support privatization, McCormick, the Oregonians for Competition spokesman, insisted members of the Oregonians for Competition alliance are more worried about the impact of a potential corporate tax increase because Initiative Petition 28, a gross receipts tax, will hit high-volume, low-margin grocers hard.

"I can't speak to IP 71 opponents' polling. They never shared it with us," McCormick said in an email. "We're satisfied from our polling that voters are ready to allow Oregonians to buy liquor in grocery stores, alongside beer and wine, like consumers in most states."

McCormick declined to share the polling to which he referred.

Dan Lavey, an adviser to opponents of privatization, scoffed at McCormick's explanation.

"I have no doubt that the grocery industry is concerned about IP28—and they should be," Lavey says. "But the idea that IP28, which they've known about for months, was the reason they withdrew the measure this week is far-fetched. There are two reasons why people abandon or never start campaigns—lack of money or you don't believe you have a path to victory. The grocers don't lack for money."

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