By John Schroyer
What the heck is going on in Florida?
That’s the question many cannabis entrepreneurs are asking after the release of several new polls showing vastly different support levels for a medical marijuana legalization measure that will appear on the November ballot.
A survey taken earlier this month found that just 48% of registered voters back the amendment – signaling that the measure could suffer a resounding defeat (it needs at least 60% to pass). Yet a separate poll taken around the same time found support at around 67%, indicating the proposal will win by a wide margin.
What’s more, there’s an eye-popping 40-point gap between recent polls that found the highest level of support, 88%, and the lowest, 48%.
That level of disparity almost never happens in politics. More often than not, polls follow a distinct trend and are usually no more than a few points apart – certainly not with 40-point swings.
As a result of the wildly differing polling data, entrepreneurs who began formulating plans for MMJ businesses when support was consistently high are now unsure about what to believe and how to proceed.
“I don’t really know what to make of it, to be quite frank,” said Robert Capecchi, deputy director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project. “I think it’s tough to read the polls. I have no idea how it’s going to come out in a couple weeks.”
The First Rule of Polling
So which poll is the most accurate? It’s hard to say, as there are many factors at play.
The political tracking site Ballotpedia has an aggregate of 15 separate surveys taken between last November and Oct. 12, with an average of 66% support.
But all these polls differ in various areas, such as the number of Florida residents polled. Some questioned well over 1,000 residents, and some less than 500. Every poll that involved more than 1,000 Floridians found Amendment 2 passing with at least 69% support.
The wording of polls can also elicit different results. Those that more closely mirror the actual ballot language could offer a more realistic view of support.
“The ones that are in the 80 (percent range) for medical marijuana, they just kind of ask, do you support medical use of marijuana?” Capecchi said. “That question, when it’s framed like that, you typically get pretty high support for it. When you ask specifically if you support the ballot language, that will go down.”
A University of North Florida survey from this month asked 471 likely voters if they would back an amendment that “allows the medical use of marijuana for individuals with debilitating diseases as determined by a Florida physician.” That question received 67% support – lower than the 80% level in some polls with broader language, but well over the threshold need to win.
Still, the fluctuation in poll numbers from the past few months can’t necessarily be written off because some surveys ask questions that mirror the text of the ballot and others are more broad.
“What I find really fascinating is I’ve seen polls where it’s almost identical language, and there’s a 13-point spread,” Capecchi said.
One possible factor: voters simply haven’t made up their minds – or they are changing where they stand, said Peter Bergerson, a political science professor at Florida Gulf Coast University.
This is especially feasible with a still-controversial topic such as marijuana.
The Power of Television Advertising
One factor in polls that show lower levels of support is that Drug Free Florida, the anti-Amendment 2 committee, has ramped up its campaigning since late summer.
The group – which has received $4 million from casino mogul Sheldon Adelson – started running a pair of TV ads in September.
“They’ve been beating the crap out of us every day on TV with misleading ads,” said Ben Pollara, campaign manager at People United for Medical Marijuana, the group behind Amendment 2.
One of the ads claims that Amendment 2 would allow ex-convicts to become MMJ caregivers and suggests the measure should be called “the Drug Dealer Protection Act.”
Maurizio Passariello, communications director for People United, said Drug Free is operating under the assumption that the Florida Legislature will take zero action if the amendment passes. He pointed out that Amendment 2 only enshrines in the state constitution the right to medical marijuana for qualified patients, but leaves regulating the industry and caregivers up to the state.
“They’re not really giving a fair picture of what the amendment does or what it’s intended to do,” Passariello said.
Bergerson described the Drug Free ads as “borderline half-truths.” But the reason political campaigns resort to such tactics is because they work.
“They’ve had a toll. And there hasn’t been a counter-opinion… as pervasive and prevalent as the anti- ads have been,” Bergerson said.
A spokesperson for Drug Free Florida did not return a call seeking comment.
Will Amendment 2 Pass?
Pollara and other supporters remain confident that Amendment 2 will get at least 60% on Election Day, saying their own internal polls show support well above that mark.
“Our polling has us winning, and I’m going to trust our pollsters,” Pollara said.
But Bergerson is skeptical.
There have been at least four polls since August that show Amendment 2 falling short and another that shows the contest as a coin flip. Although numerous other polls show it passing, it’s far from a lock.
“You need to follow a number of polls, and there has to be a trend to realistically give a professional judgment on what the outcome might be,” Bergerson said. “Relying on one poll is a real mistake and not a good way of making some intelligent decision about the potential outcome.”
Another factor to consider, said Bergerson, is that these are midterm elections. When it’s not a presidential year, turnout is typically much lower, and the youth vote is often far below what it was in 2012 or 2008.
“The idea that you’re going to get a groundswell of support from the youth vote, that will just not materialize,” Bergerson predicted, adding that the youth vote may make up between 15-18% of total turnout. “The total turnout is going to be less than 40% of registered voters.”
The professor hypothesized that Amendment 2 will top out around 50-55% support on Election Day.
“My guess is it’s going to fail,” Bergerson said. “The 60% threshold is very hard to reach. The nature of the electorate is the average voter will be 50 years old, and many of them are going to be scared by or unsure of what the amendment really allows for.”
The Cannabusiness Component
The disparate polls haven’t hurt fundraising efforts for the cannabis campaign. But they might have other ripple effects, including declining voter morale – which could dampen turnout on Election Day.
The uncertain situation could also influence companies who were previously planning on starting MMJ businesses in Florida.
“A lot of companies have been trying to cobble pieces together to become a fully integrated company,” said Mike Smullen, executive chairman of Altmed LLC, a Florida cannabis company that hopes to open a MMJ dispensary and grow operation. “If they’re looking at the poll numbers not looking that great, I’m certain that it would cause some people to pause and not want to move forward until they have better clarity.”
Altmed – which donated $50,000 to People United between September and October – is one of dozens of firms hoping to set up shop in Florida.
Smullen said Altmed is moving forward with its operation regardless of whether Amendment 2 passes, because the company wants to be a supplier of high-CBD medical cannabis that the state Legislature approved earlier this year.
But, Smullen noted, not every cannabis entrepreneur interested in Florida is in the same boat. Plenty of small businesses don’t have the same amount of resources as Altmed. These companies could be forced to wait until 2016 or later for another MMJ ballot measure if Amendment 2 fails.
John Schroyer can be reached at [email protected]