In 2004, Republicans managed to put measures on the ballot in 11 states to ban same-sex marriage, a red-hot family values issue that boosted conservative turnout and played a role in President Bush's reelection.
The strategy seemed certain to have a prominent place in the GOP political playbook. But four years later, few key battleground states will vote on propositions likely to excite conservatives.
Republicans have been tripped up by mishaps and errors that have kept measures off the ballot. One leading ballot measure activist was sidelined for this November's contests after being arrested in Oklahoma on charges of violating petition rules.
Some conservative strategists also blame a lack of new ideas for initiatives. They say the right, beaten down by the Republican Party's dismal rankings in the polls and its lukewarm electoral prospects, has no stomach this year for expensive initiative battles.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, July 30, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction
State propositions: An article in Tuesday's Section A about conservative efforts to place propositions on state ballots said a measure pushed by initiative promoter Ward Connerly to limit affirmative action in government had stalled in Nebraska. Such a measure stalled in Oklahoma, but one is set to appear on the Nebraska ballot.
"There has been a lack of funding on the right side, up and down. The right is despondent and demoralized," said Tim Mooney, an Arizona initiative consultant.
At the same time, an energized left has fought harder to keep conservative-backed measures off ballots and put their own measures on them.
Although there will be ballot measure fights in several states, many will be taking place in states where there is little question about the outcome of the Barack Obama vs. John McCain contest.
Partly for that reason, even hot-button measures to ban gay marriage -- on the ballot in California, Arizona and Florida -- might not do much for the conservative cause in November. California is considered a sure-win for Obama, regardless of any state measure on the ballot, and, likewise, McCain is the heavy favorite in his home state of Arizona.
Florida is a battleground state but neither McCain nor his backers have shown an interest in championing the initiative. In fact, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican mentioned as a possible running mate for McCain, tried to derail the measure.
In other cases, anticipated measures that might have appealed to the GOP base didn't materialize. That includes anti-immigration initiatives, an issue that could have been politically problematic for McCain, who co-wrote immigration legislation that many conservatives opposed.
"Immigration measures can have a backlash. Certainly, John McCain realizes this," said political scientist Daniel A. Smith at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
Conservatives also have had mixed results in efforts to place limits on abortion and affirmative action on ballots.
Michael Arno, who owns a Sacramento-based petition circulation firm that places conservative-backed measures on ballots, cites his own experience in California as evidence of the enthusiasm deficit that Republicans confront.
Last year, he began to push a measure to alter the nation's electoral map to help the GOP's presidential candidate.
The measure would have replaced California's winner-take-all system of awarding electoral votes, which has favored Democrats since Bill Clinton won in 1992, with a system awarding electors congressional district by congressional district.
But Arno could not raise the money to pay to collect the 450,000 valid signatures needed to put the measure on the state's ballot. On ballots across the country, he said, "There are no wedge issues out there. There's nothing for the activists to be active about."
Then there is the matter of Paul Jacob. The former head of U.S. Term Limits, an advocacy group, Jacob estimates that he has pushed 70 propositions since 1990. Besides term limits, his measures included bids to cut taxes and curb government's eminent domain authority.
All that stopped in November, though, when Oklahoma officials arrested Jacob on charges of violating a state law that bars nonresidents from circulating petitions. So Jacob is sitting out this campaign.
Even in states where conservatives have enjoyed some success in getting measures on the ballot, there have been setbacks.
In Nevada, an anti-tax measure similar to California's Proposition 13 might make it to the ballot. But others, financed by billionaire Sheldon Adelson, chairman of Las Vegas Sands Corp. and a McCain backer, to trim state government and limit taxes have been tied up in legal battles and await decisions by the Nevada Supreme Court.
In Colorado, voters are expected to decide on an anti-affirmative action measure. But Democrats have succeeded in qualifying measures of their own, and the right has been divided over a "personhood" initiative that legally defines the beginning of life as the moment of conception.
Like Bush, McCain needs to win in Ohio. But the situation this November will be far different than four years ago, when Ohio was at the epicenter of the same-sex marriage debate. Bush won that state's 20 electoral votes, sealing his victory.
"It certainly invigorated churches," Arno said. "When we were doing the marriage initiative in Ohio, we felt we were helping get Bush reelected."