WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Florida’s race for governor has focused on the candidates’ integrity and their credit or blame for the economy. But an issue seldom mentioned on the campaign trail could play the spoiler in the razor-thin contest.
Medical marijuana, up for legalization under the Amendment 2 initiative, is supported by Democrat Charlie Crist and opposed by Republican Rick Scott. Though neither candidate has made the issue a campaign centerpiece, its presence on the ballot could help decide who takes the governor’s mansion.
“I don’t think that there’s anyone out there that doesn’t think this race isn’t going to be won or lost by a couple of percentage points,” said Erik Williams, a longtime Democratic political consultant who now coordinates government relations for beMindful, which operates marijuana dispensaries in Colorado. “Driving turnout on an issue such as this it absolutely could play a major role in determining who’s the next governor.”
Experts disagree on how much a ballot question such as Amendment 2 increases turnout, but most agree Crist will get any extra votes. Medical marijuana has wide support nationally and, unlike other social issues that often show up in ballot initiatives like abortion or gay marriage, it is less likely to drive opponents to the polls solely to voice their disapproval.
“With marijuana, there’s no backlash. There aren’t people that turn out to vote just to vote against it,” said Celinda Lake, a pollster who has conducted surveys on marijuana ballot measures.
Pre-election pot polls
Amendment 2 requires 60 percent approval to pass. Polls have consistently shown Democrats and younger voters showing more support for it than Republicans and older voters.
Voters in Alaska, Oregon and the District of Columbia also have marijuana questions before them — to legalize recreational use — but Florida’s initiative has attracted more money and attention. Outside Florida, the race for Senate in Alaska is the closest, most high-profile race, but it seems much less likely to be affected by the marijuana vote because neither candidate has endorsed it.
Mason Tvert of the Marijuana Policy Project downplayed the role marijuana initiatives play in political races, but conceded in very close races like Florida’s, it could be the decider. Still, Tvert said ballot questions don’t inherently benefit Democrats unless a candidate has vocally supported it.
“A race that’s coming down to just thousands or even hundreds of votes, it could play a big role,” he said.
Earlier this year, Scott signed legislation legalizing a single strain of low-potency medical marijuana known as Charlotte’s Web, but he has spoken against the broader initiative.
“I’ve watched family members deal with drug abuse, so it scares the living daylights out of me,” Scott said when questioned about it at a debate earlier this month.
John Morgan, an Orlando-based personal injury attorney, chairs United for Care, the pro-Amendment 2 campaign. But because he’s also a supporter, and employer, of Crist, it has raised suspicions among some voters about the amendment’s true purpose. Crist says he supports the measure “out of compassion” for the suffering, but also suggests it could help him politically.
“I’m going to vote for it. My opponent does not support it and that may be a big difference maker, especially to younger voters, but I think also to seniors,” he told The Associated Press.
Still, even in Colorado, where marijuana has been on statewide ballots three times since 2000, the wider political impact of such initiatives isn’t clear.
President Barack Obama won the state in 2012, but with less support than the marijuana initiative, meaning some in the pro-pot camp cast ballots for the Republican candidate, Mitt Romney. Meanwhile, exit polls showed more young voters there than four years earlier, when marijuana wasn’t on ballots.
Some remain convinced, though, that the increased turnout had a spillover effect.
“Of course it played a role,” said Rick Enstrom, a Republican who lost a state House race by about 1,500 votes. “It energized a portion of the voting populace that does not ordinarily vote. I think it helped motivate the college students, and I think that’s partially what it was designed to do.”
Associated Press writers Kristen Wyatt in Denver and Brendan Farrington in Tallahassee, Florida, contributed to this report.