“I vape and I am eligible to vote, but seldom do it” is probably a better slogan

by Carl V Phillips

There has a lot of discussion about tactics in the comments of my recent posts, including the common error that there is a tension between tactical thinking and scientific analysis (see the my last paragraph from the previous post). So this post is entirely about tactics — from a scientific perspective.

In the USA, presidential elections get people briefly interested in the politics that shapes their lives. In the UK, the Brexit vote has momentous implications. In both of these, there are memes floating around about how voters who are motivated to protect their right to vape could sway elections. But could they really?

The answer is almost certainly no. Before proceeding, I will pause to note that I am not suggesting that there is anything harmful about the “I vape, I vote!” rallying cry. It is cathartic to imagine winning the lottery. Unlike most slacktivism (such as signing meaningless petitions), my guess is that the net effects of “I vape, I vote!” are positive (except for perhaps some risks of being co-opted or alienating observers — see below). In terms of the tension between “motivating people toward further action that is useful” versus “causing people to pat themselves on the back for having done something and stop there”, I would guess that casting a vote or showing the “I vape, I vote” flag tends toward the former. But that is no reason to not be realistic about it.

A popular meme says that there are ten million vapers in the USA and that could sway the November election. This talk was more common a couple of months ago, when I first conceived this post (but was not at liberty to publish it), but it still pops up several times a week in my social media.

Let’s break that claim down a bit. If we narrow that to the number who care enough about vaping that it could possibly motivate them to get out to vote, much less motivate who they vote for, it would be rather optimistic to put the number at 4 or 5 million. Consider the most extreme scenario, wherein the eventual GOP presidential nominee openly states that he will stop FDA from banning e-cigarettes. Though there are no useful statistics I am aware of, it seems safe to assume that if the election is actually competitive (i.e., assuming Trump is not the nominee) roughly half of the vaper-voters were already going vote for him, so they are powerless. (This rather important point seems to have been conveniently overlooked by those touting the “10 million votes!!!” claim.) Given the political proclivities of those who become enthusiastic enough to even consider voting based on this issue (anti-nanny and such), it is probably more than half. Of the remaining ~2 million (a charitable count) who could be persuaded to change their vote, many are going to care enough more about other major domestic issues (or will simply so despise the Republican nominee) that they would not be swayed despite the temptation. (It is sadly certain that both candidates will be warmongers, or else strong feelings about that would further prevent some vote changing.)

Moreover, the geographic distribution of vaping and of those 2 million is such that they are concentrated in safe blue states. This brings us down to a fraction of 1% of the swing-state electorate, even under the optimistic assumptions. Yes, states are occasionally won by a few thousand votes, but not very often. I think a very similar analysis applies to the Brexit vote, but I will leave that to others who are more familiar with the UK electorate. I will stick to U.S. political science, which I know far better.

But a show of overt support for vaping is really only a realistic scenario for a few congressional races, such as where an incumbent has supported HR 2058. In that case we may be dealing with percentages as large as those I just played with (assuming voting vapers learn the rather obscure fact that their Representative cosponsored a particular bill). Since we are talking about House incumbents, those races are unlikely to be competitive. For any competitive race, it is unlikely a candidate will volunteer any overt support for vaping.

Unlike with the Brexit vote where opposition to the EU’s Tobacco Products Directive dovetails well with other pro-Brexit positions, a candidate for president or any other office would be stepping into a minefield with a pro-vaping promise. Perhaps it could be done via dog-whistle, without making any overt statement, but that seems unlikely to reach many voters. Any overt statement — short of a major policy address about the issue (which is clearly not going to happen, and even that might not stop the spin anyway) — will be easily spun by the opposition into “he wants to roll back the gains we have made against youth tobacco use!” There is a very good chance that this would lose more votes than it would win, making it extremely unlikely to happen. Thus, swaying votes really comes down to would-be Democratic voters voting for a Republican who has made no promises, based merely on the hope that this could help protect vaping (a realistic appraisal of the proclivities of the two parties, but a low-probability outcome). How many such voters would really be willing to lose the Affordable Care Act and accept budget-busting tax breaks for the rich based on the mere chance that the new POTUS would bother to expend any political capital to intervene at the Center for Tobacco Products? The number willing to change their votes based on that prospect is going to be a small fraction of the already limited number who would respond to an overt promise to intervene.

(An advantage of delaying this post is that I can reference a new survey that shows that even among what was presumably a convenience sample of vapers who were enthusiastic enough to reply, there is no signal that could be interpreted as this issue swaying many votes. The reported results are pretty hard to make any sense of, so I trust the above back-of-the-envelope far more, but it seems to point in the same direction.)

All this does not mean that vapers cannot sway elections. It just means that it is extremely unlikely they can do so merely by voting, and vanishingly unlikely they could affect an election where everyone cares about the outcome (for many reasons) and are already highly motivated to vote. When an issue advocacy effort begins and ends with the election in a year divisible by four, it seldom brings about any change. This substantially explains why the presidency remains competitive, with the advantage skewing Democratic, while Republicans have become so dominant down-ticket. The current success of the Republican party, particularly its “Tea Party”-type factions, owes much to organization at the furthest points down-ticket, focusing on state and local elections, clear down to focusing on school boards, county commissions, etc. before moving on to state houses.

Those elections are often won by only a handful of votes from among the tiny portion of the electorate that can be persuaded to show up to vote when no one is running for the White House or governor. This is even more true for contested primaries. Someone who normally does not vote in such elections, but might be persuaded to show up to vote single-issue, is worth more than someone who already feels strongly partisan (or otherwise inspired) enough to vote (thus the title of this post).

Of course, you are probably already thinking that these elections are closer because the districts are smaller. Thus we are probably only talking about a handful of politically activated vapers locally, and only a few hundred others vapers who could be persuaded to vape-vote. That is where organization comes in.

In most of those elections, the candidate is lucky if she can get a total of a couple of person-years worth of campaign volunteer time. Active volunteers can turn out hundreds of extra votes. If a candidate who actively championed vapers’ rights (perhaps a vaper who has never been in politics before but is a credible candidate — hint, hint!) could count on a support from constituents who vape (who would help get out their friends to vote), a handful of local active volunteers from her district and nearby (who could do the legwork that generates hundreds or thousands of votes), and phone banking and other support that can be done remotely from hundreds of others, it could (a) sway an election and (b) create an elected official who is all about advocating vapers’ rights.

One seat in the Maryland, New Jersey, or Iowa legislature (yes, friends, I am looking at you) is unlikely to change any legislative vote outcomes. But it would be a great bully pulpit to speak from, generating national attention, and perhaps even be a path to more influential office. Perhaps most important, if it worked once it would encourage other pro-vaping office holders or candidates, and strike some fear into those actively supporting the other side.

Of course organization requires, well, organization. Industry has the resources to pull this off, but that would probably not work out so well for obvious reasons. It would require a much more organized grassroots effort than has ever existed. Since I am out of the grassroots organizing business, that falls to someone else (again: hint, hint). I am not predicting this will ever happen, of course, let alone saying it would necessarily work. But it could.

That brings us back to the feel-good “I vape, I vote” rhetoric, which has only a tiny chance of swaying any election and far less chance of electing someone who might just happen to make a major effort for vapers’ rights. I notice that serious vaping advocates seem to understand this, and so give the “I vape, I vote” thing a little play for the feel-good aspect, but have not pretended it is really important. An “I vape, I vote” sticker or sign is a good way to show the flag. (But, another little hint: When you are showing the flag, you need to act with the height of decorum. Consider your reaction when a car with a “Go vegan” sticker cuts you off in traffic or Black Lives Matter activists disrupt a speech. Many of the “undecideds” on this issue are far more ready to scoff at vapers than to be impressed by their commitment.)

So who has tried to make “I vape, I vote” a big deal? As far as I can tell, that would be a single right-wing advocacy group, Americans for Tax Reform. And that makes a lot of sense. On the off-chance that vaper voting does sway any election, it will almost certainly be in their preferred direction. While that outcome will probably make zero difference for vaping, it serves ATR’s much broader agenda.

I am not saying there is anything wrong with entering into alliances, even ones with hugely asymmetric benefits. Two-party politics necessitates alliances at the issue level. Such an alliance could even provide the organizational structure for the local election effort that I described above (though almost certainly not without a strong affirmative push for such support by those on the low end of that asymmetric alliance). But vaper advocates who are serious about this should avoid getting persuaded that vape-voting in the 2016 election makes any difference for their cause. Winning-the-lottery dreams are fun, but if this talk about elections is really about affecting change, attention should shift to asking what can be done in the 2017 elections.

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8 responses to ““I vape and I am eligible to vote, but seldom do it” is probably a better slogan

  1. The US vote is the normal run of the mill election,with the exception of Trump being in the field.It is highly unlikely that Vapers can,or will make any difference.The Britexit vote in the UK is completely different and shouldn’t be used as a similarity to compare to the US election as in Britain a few hundred thousand votes could indeed make a difference,so vaping in theory could make a major difference to the outcome!

    • Carl V Phillips

      Actually our election has been once-in-over-a-generation unusual even apart from Trump, though there is a good chance it will end up putting into office the most conservative (real meaning of the word) establishment candidate, which will kick the realignment can down the road a bit. But, yes, these elections happen every four years, so in that sense it is more normal than a one-off referendum.

      I am willing to believe that this issue is slightly more likely to influence the Brexit vote than the U.S. candidate elections, though you have not convinced me. Even if it comes down to a few hundred thousand votes, that seems like way more than vapers can deliver, given the factors I already noted. Yes, you do have a situation with the pro-vape voting direction being pretty clear, given the TPD (whatever the UK comes up with as its own rules, it is hard to believe they would be quite so random). On the other hand, not quite as much is at stake (TPD is not as bad as what FDA has proposed). You do not have the electoral college factors that make the highest concentrations of vaper-voters not matter. On the other hand, there is probably greater alignment between vapers and pro-Brexit (apart from the vaping motive) than there is between vapers and Republicans, so more of the potential vape-votes cannot change to pro-Brexit.

  2. Sorry that this will be a downer and please don’t send hate mail. But–

    Once upon a time there was also an “I smoke, I vote ” idea that had zero effect– even at a time early in the war on smokers, before smokers had been thoroughly trounced and delegitimized (by both parties, not by the way) and when the number of smokers was –still is– far greater than the number of vapers.

    The thing is, politicians don’t care. They don’t care about your vote. They don’t care about you. (if they did, they’d applaud your choice to vape.) And they don’t have to care. People who have anything to do with nicotine are Bad People and Terrible Role Models. No empathy required. And numerically, you’re expendable. , When then-NY governor Pataki raised NY state cigarette taxes to bail out union pensions, he was quoted as having said, “There are more union members than smokers so it won’t hurt me.” And it didn’t.

    Then there’s the smear factor for being perceived as siding with scum. When Bloomberg’s rival in a mayoral election talked openly about relaxing the smoking ban, Bloomberg instantly dubbed him “the pro-cancer candidate” and the guy dropped the subject.

    Then there’s money. No politician can take tobacco industry money w/o being labeled a puppet or an accomplice to murder, and the smaller vape manufacturers likely don’t have enough money to buy influence and even if they did, the pols who took it would be equally tarred. But pharma (the ecig’s rival) can deliver. And the anti-tobacco-or-anything-that-looks-like-tobacco claque that populates government agencies can send paid employees to lobby against you. (This democracy is not what you think it is.)

    Nor is there much sunshine on the local level either. I’ve attended city council hearings and spoken on behalf of smokers and, more recently, vapers but while they’re called “hearings,” nobody listens. You’re talking to closed minds and, again, to pols who are scared of being politically incorrect. You can counter all your opponents’ arguments with exquisite logic, peer reviewed science, and references to the Constitution. Nothin’. You’re up against four guys from the Health Dept, and three asthmatic children who will swear that the vapor from your apartment six floors away is killing them. And their puppy, their guppy and their souvenir cactus. And now that the argument has slipped to “Do we want The Children to see something that even looks like smoking and therefore think it’s Normal and therefore Die” there’s little left to say. What politician wants it said he killed children?

    I don’t know what’s the answer. I do know that vapers are traveling the same path (to the slaughterhouse) that smokers were led on. It may be more productive at this point to try to change the minds of the larger public–to get sufficient numbers–than to go directly at the pols. So start bombarding the media in every way you can think of. Organize. If you can scape together some money, consider hiring a PR firm. Think outside the box you’re being boxed into.

    • Carl V Phillips

      I agree that the fact that smokers could not pull this off is an additional bad sign. Clearly voting blocks cannot form around a single issue like this, even though it is so important to so many people. I still think that a targeted local-level effort could work for vapers even though it could only work in a few odd places for smokers, for the very reason you note: Smoking was so vilified. Vaping is vilified too, but not quite so much that someone could not pry that loose if there really was a focused effort.

      There are no shortage of analogies between what happened to smokers and what seems quite possible to happen to vapers in most places. But there are also intriguing differences (ah, to have some time to do serious political science about it, sigh). Because there is so much noise coming from vapers and there is semi-organization, I don’t think the path that is being traveled is quite the same (even if the possible endpoint looks similar). The problem is that 95% of the energy expended is basically useless (and a fair bit of that is probably counterproductive), and almost no one is really trying to identify which bits are the 5%, let alone to try to lead the 95% toward the 5%. All we have to do is paint our faces blue, yell really loud, and charge, right? There are hundreds of thousands of us, after all! Well, perhaps not when the enemy is heavily entrenched, well armed, and has a core of trained and disciplined professional soldiers.

  3. Roberto Sussman

    Judging from your text I get the impression that vapers would tend to get a better hearing from Republicans than Democrats, which (apparently) would make sense because tobacco controllers (the main opponents of vaping) are part of a public bureaucracy that belongs to what traditional Republicans (do not know if also Trump) calls “Big Government”. Is this impression factually correct?

    While I am ignorant on the details of how politics run in the US, I agree that any campaign based on vaping would be a non-starter (or even a disaster) in the coming presidential elections. However, I get the impression that a lot of political activity in the USA is based on lobbying activity on single issues. In fact, the set of Tobacco Control bureaucracies operate as a single issue political lobby similar to the NRA or AIPAC. It seems that those trying to get a fair hearing for vaping (or smoking) face roughly the same formidable obstacles as those challenging these lobbies in their single issues (guns and Israel’s policies). Even Obama himself has had to back down from positions that are mildly critical of the orthodoxy of these lobbies.

    Can a pro-vaping lobby be organized? after all there are millions of vapers, and even more millions is you add those disaffected by the excesses of “nanny state” policies. A similar question is being discussed in Mexico: why there is no pro-Mexico lobby addressing issues like bilateral relations, drug policies and migration? This makes sense, given the political potential of the new demography: millions of Mexicans (born in Mexico) live in the USA, either as legal residents and citizens or as illegal migrants, not to mention more millions of Mexican-Americans. The absence of some organized political agent that stands for the interests of Mexicans in the USA is (at least partly) what explains why Trump can use with impunity anti-Mexican prejudice for political gain (just as any politician can use with impunity junk science and prejudice to lash against smokers or vapers).

    A pro-Mexico lobby never emerged (and will likely never will) partly because of the sloppiness and insularity of Mexican governments, partly because of the relative social (and also financial) weakness of the targeted constituency (a lot of which are illegal migrants) and partly because of the geographical dispersion. As a contrast, Cuban-Americans migrants arriving to South Florida in the 60’s and 70’s were mostly affluent middle class and upper middle class businessmen, so they managed to create in the 70’s their lobby (the Cuban-American National Foundation), strongly aligned with the Republican party and very influential in local politics. Until relatively recently they had veto power on anything related with US policy towards Cuba, but this lobby is now in decline because younger Cuban-Americans and more recent migrants from Cuba do not share the founders’ strategy of uncompromising hostility to the Castro regime.

    Apparently, a successful lobbying activity requires a single issue that is backed by a mostly middle class and articulate constituency. It is even better if academics can be recruited to promote the issue on campuses. It seems that vapers tend to be middle class and articulate, so a pro-vaping lobby could emerge if a sufficient number of pro-vaping physicians can be recruited to act in coordination (it seems that politicians listen to physicians in “health” issues). However, I’m skeptical that such lobby could emerge. Facing “Big Pharma” as opponents is like climbing a vertical wall. Perhaps some restrictions will be lifted, but (in my view) vaping will be highly taxed as cigarettes and may evolve into a minority niche of relatively affluent users (just as cigar and pipe smoking).

    Most cigarette smokers (it seems) are lower income wage earners (cigar smokers tend to be affluent but are a tiny minority). In my view, only for this reason there is no chance for a lobby defending their rights. For smokers the only possible way of resistance is perhaps to appeal directly to human rights violations ans to appeal to emotions through the same type of blackmail tactics used by TC. Since a child saying “daddy please don’t choke me with ETS”, advocating for the rights of smokers can use footage showing senior citizens being evicted in winter time from public housing for smoking in their own homes (“.. please son, don’t evict me, I have nowhere to go, I’m too old to quit smoking, let me die with dignity, …”), .

    The fact that TC is so similar (in concept and in operation) to single issues lobbies in the USA perhaps explains why TC has penetrated mostly on developed countries, since perhaps local public health bureaucracies can imitate or adapt to their political system this type of lobbying. However, I doubt this political model can be imitated or exported to developing countries. In dictatorships all issues of public health depend on the dictator’s whims (for this reason smoking is punished in Turkmenistan and in Bhutan). Governments of middle income third world democracies or semi-democracies may be pressed by the WHO to legislate bans and prohibitions, but law enforcement and law abidance is very lax and in those countries the authorities have more pressing problems to tackle (crime, warfare, civil unrest, corruption, etc) than “protecting the health of non-smokers”. I was recently visiting various universities in India. Smoking was officially banned in all campus areas (including outdoors) but all smokers smoked in their offices and visitors smoked in their rooms.

    • Carl V Phillips

      As usual, Roberto, you need a blog of your own because you have a full post worth of good material there. Let me take it from the top down, in multiple pieces.

      Yes, Republicans are more positive about vaping than Democrats. Mostly of both are indifferent, but attacks on vaping almost always come from Democratic legislators and active support almost always comes from Republican legislators. Executive branch elected officials (POTUS, Governors, Mayors) don’t seem to say word about it, an often overlooked clue about what is really going on. However, there is nothing at all natural about the partisan divide.

      This will be covered in the one last post I want to make sure to get onto this blog (might not be the very last, but might be). But to rehearse the theme a bit: If you just read within the anti-nanny echo chamber, you would assimilate the notion that it is obvious that the political left (within modern liberal republics) is always the faction of restricting individual liberties. But if you ask a roomful of Americans (probably works elsewhere too, but can’t say for sure) “which political party is better at protecting people’s rights and freedoms”, basically every one of them answers with the party they support. If you do it with a sufficiently educated and politically invested room (I have seen it done at Harvard, in a room that included current and former elected officials) you will then see intelligent worldly people responding to those who (honestly and intelligently) gave the other answer with genuine surprise. Only if you include serious social scientists in the mix are you likely to get the best answer: It depends on which freedoms.

      Now if you think about it, the fact that you get those answer is obviously predictable. People gravitate to the party that protects those freedoms they care most about. When asked about unspecified “freedoms”, they think of the ones they care most about. (Also, people who identify strongly with a group will naturally start to adopt some of their views, particular on issues where that person is relatively indifferent or ambivalent, for a number of reasons). So if someone cares about everyone having a chance to be free from being modern-day serfs — to get an education, collectively bargain for labor contracts, etc. — that is solidly a genuinely leftist freedom. If someone cares about everyone having a chance to to do whatever they want with their money and corporations, that is solidly rightist freedom. But what about the right to choose to have guns, abortions, gay sex, etc., or to use cannabis, cigarettes, or ecigs, etc.? None of those are really right or left (as those terms are defined in terms of economics policies). The same is true for some times of commerce activity that bit freedom (to do the commerce) versus freedom (to not be subject to the spillovers from the commerce). Some might fit better on one side or the other, but mostly they are orthogonal. Thus we have those who are and/or consider themselves personal choice libertarians, who favor freedom for most or all of those. They are divided between the two parties because those issues are divided between the parties, some due to historical accident that could have gone the other way, and some for reasons that are secondary to the economic leanings (e.g., being anti-Drug-War is a natural position for those concerned about the plight of the poor). Neither the “right” nor the “left” factions are inherently the friend or enemy of personal liberties — it is case-by-case. (This is clearly true in the USA and many — not all — other modern republics follow a similar pattern.)

      So at that point we need to analyze the individual cases to assess whether it is “natural” that anti-THR or nanny state policies are naturally the domain of the left or right. Anti-tobacco found its power base within the left parties in most places, though there was not a lot of opposition from the parties on the right. For anti-illicit drug efforts, the reverse is true. Freedoms of speech, association, and religion are similarly divided, as are freedoms relating to domestic police powers. (Just leave foreign policy out of this entirely — it is yet another dimension of political preferences.) The most similar thing on these lists to anti-tobacco (and anti-soda and all of those) is anti-drug, which is associated with the political right. The most similar thing to anti-THR is anti-harm-reduction efforts by Drug War supporters, again coming from the political right. Thus, don’t let anyone tell you that this is typical “leftist” behavior.

      So how to explain it? I will do that in my next post. I believe that the best explanation for the historical alignment is that of tradition and race. But the best explanation for the persistence is attitudes (often misguided — the thesis of the upcoming post) toward business.

      To be continued.

      [Footnote: If you are trying to make sense of this from the outside and do a bit more reading, there are two things you need to know: First, a block known as Southern Democrats or Dixiecrats were officially in the Democratic party for decades but were further “right” (to use the term in its present sloppy form) than the Republicans in terms of social issues. In the 1860s, the Democrats were the party of slavery and the Republicans the party of Lincoln, and because of that a lot of right-wing white people in the old South kept the label even after the parties reversed their spots on the left-right spectrum in the ensuing decades. This lasted until the Nixon/Reagan “southern strategy” [i.e., “become the preferred party of the racists” strategy] moved them officially in the Republican party. The other thing to keep in mind is that the Clinton presidency, and also Obama to a lesser extent, defies some of these divides because they governed to the right of center (by the standards of the world’s European-modeled modern republics) despite the rhetoric to the contrary. By most measures they were to the right of Nixon and certainly Eisenhower (the two elected Republican presidents of the modern but pre-Reagan era).]

    • Carl V Phillips

      …continuing…

      So can we attribute anti-THR or even anti-smoking divides to who likes “Big Government”? To a very limited extent, at most. Restrictions on individual liberty (and the necessary associated commercial relationships) come from both sides. If you tried to quantify it, I am sure it is unbalanced — but closer to a 60-40 degree, rather than the 90-10 degree that the rhetoric would imply.

      Yes, single-issue politics is usually about lobbying (of various sorts). This gives the power to organized interests (e.g., the tobacco control industry; corporations) rather than the voters. Citizen lobbying can matter at the state level, but it is still a lot of work (and so we run into the collective action problem). At the national level, it is mostly a cry in the wilderness. At the local level, the government is often so corrupt (perhaps not by any legal definition, but functionally so) that it will not work. So you have the textbook examples of that — corporate voices (working directly or through organizations that give them additional astroturfed credibility, as with the NRA), organized labor (largely faded and still sinking) — along with an scattershot collection of odd creature like AIPAC (wielding big money that depends on some ad hoc collection of rich donors, commercial interests, and foreign governments) and like the “public health” lobby (depending on tax money, big donors, and a patina of small donors). It is a very difficult field for consumers or small consumer groups to play on, especially at the national level.

  4. Roberto Sussman

    Carl, thanks for your detailed explanation. I can see how difficult it is to speak up politically for the rights of vapers (more so for smokers) in the USA.

    I am trying to set up a blog. Since there are already very good blogs in English that deal with the issues in the context of the US, UK and other developed countries, I am thinking of a blog to address the issues in the Mexican and Latin American context. I have found here an even larger vacuum of information on actual facts on smoking, ETS, vaping, THR, even among educated people, something connected to the fact that these are not seen as important or pressing issues like poverty, crime, corruption, war on drugs, etc. While there is broad public awareness of the damages of cigarette smoking (less than 16% of the population smokes from 37% in the 70′), it is rare to find individuals (even physicians) that take this awareness to the extremes of supporting the excessive authoritarian uncompromising anti-smoking regulation that you often find in the US or Canada.

    Paradoxically, e-cigs are seen by a lot of people in the region (including smokers) with suspicion, even if their THR effect is sometimes acknowledged. This is a natural output of negative campaigns that have distributed through the local social networks all the junk science and lies that you and others have exhibited in your forums. Since people here are not aware of these English language forums, a lot of what I need to do is simply to provide the appropriate links and to translate the contents to Spanish. So far, the sale of e-cigs is illegal in Mexico and in most of Latin America. In Mexico the government is perpetually delaying its official regulation. Probably active lobbying by Big Pharma and Big Tobacco are behind this, but practically all lobbying of this type is done here behind the walls.

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