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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

How foes beat medical marijuana in Fla

13

November

Money and message. That pretty much sums up the winning recipe the Vote No On 2 group used to defeat the medical marijuana initiative. Tre Evers, the general consultant working on the campaign, lays it all out in memo analyzing the campaign's success, though he ignores the lack of a well-funded campaign by the other side once it got on the ballot.

MEMORANDUM

TO:  “No on 2” Campaign Supporters
FROM:  Tre’ Evers, General Consultant
DATE:  November 13, 2014
SUBJECT: Analyzing the Defeat of Amendment 2

Many of the pundits have weighed in on how they think Amendment 2 was defeated.  With the benefit of a week to review results and data, and to look back on the highlights of this historic campaign, I’d like to offer my take from behind the curtain.

In the summer of 2014, the Quinnipiac University issued a survey showing Floridians overwhelmingly backed Medical Marijuana, 88 percent to 10 percent. The “YES on 2” campaign seized on the poll results, attempting to win the election by acclamation before the voting started.  Some reporters told us in interviews that it could not be beaten.  So how did support slip by 30 points and opposition rise by more than 30 points?

Some pundits say poor amendment wording caused Amendment 2’s demise.  Others say the Amendment’s lead sponsor committed a series of gaffes, or that the proponents’ campaign committed a series of forced and unforced errors.   Others have simply said that opponents ran a better, more disciplined campaign. As is usually the case, there was no single sliver bullet, but a combination of these and other factors that led to Amendment 2’s defeat.

The amendment’s sponsors have indicated they still want to legalize pot in Florida and there may be another campaign, so while there are some parts of our strategy that I will not discuss, this analysis provides an overview of what caused Amendment 2’s demise, and why some of those factors cannot be cured by proponents in any future attempt.  

MESSAGE

First, we recognized that ballot initiatives are fundamentally different from candidate campaigns.  Once placed on the ballot, an amendment cannot be modified or “fixed.”  Consequently, we developed a series of messages aimed at the highly specific (and very dangerous) flaws in Amendment 2.  These “loopholes” became the foundation of our campaign.  

As tempting as it might have been to refocus our campaign on the foibles of Amendment 2’s authors and financial backers, we understood that voters do not make ballot initiative decisions based on inside baseball.  They vote based on the merits of the issue.  Therefore, we remained focused on the amendment and its consequences.  We remained focused on the loopholes.
                                                                                              
The “YES on 2” campaign had no choice but to engage in this debate because the impact of the loopholes in their amendment were serious and legitimate.  Candidates can change their minds.  Once Constitutional Amendments are drafted, they cannot.  That did not stop the Yes campaign from trying to do so.  They assembled a blue-ribbon committee, to allegedly develop implementing language to address the loopholes.  It was an admission by their side that the loopholes were legitimate, serious and politically problematic.  This attempt at a media stunt to slow the bleeding ended up being a fruitless exercise, and a proof point for the No campaign.

Our focus was Amendment 2 with all its warts.  That’s what was on the ballot.  We ran a campaign based on the practical and policy implications of Amendment 2.  The Yes campaign tried to use appeals for compassion in the hopes that Amendment 2 would be decided based on emotion rather than facts.  They wanted voters to ignore the track record of so-called “medical” marijuana in other states.  We did not let them get away with this. 

MESSENGERS

Amendment 2 skeptics were experts: constitutional attorneys, medical doctors, law enforcement officers, drug treatment professionals and even 7 former Supreme Court Justices.  Without question, the opinions of these experts were well researched and highly credible.  

The assistance of other groups in the education of Florida voters was vital.  Nearly every elected Sheriff in Florida took to the public forum to educate their constituents on the problems with Amendment 2.  Sheriff Grady Judd of Polk County in particular became one of the main spokespersons for the opposition.  He seemed omnipresent at meetings, debates and press interviews across Florida.  Sheriff Gualatieri of Pinellas County debated John Morgan on a statewide NBC telecast while Sheriff Don Eslinger of Seminole County held numerous press conferences in Tallahassee.  Likewise, many other Sheriffs visited their local newspapers, spoke to churches and community groups, and elevated the discussion of this important issue. 

Additionally, groups like the Drug Free America Foundation who helped form the “Don’t Let Florida go to Pot” coalition worked every day to deliver helpful educational information to voters – particularly highlighting the pitfalls of “medical” marijuana experienced in other states.

I cannot overstate the importance of those who promoted our efforts through social media.  In a state the size of Florida, the No on 2 campaign’s Facebook presence became our 21st century method of going door to door. Our 40,000 followers were fired up, and took the time to share their views, our content and the importance of this issue to their friends throughout Florida.

The work of all of these groups and individuals allowed us to focus limited campaign resources on efficient, targeted mass media that communicated our tried-and-true loophole messages directly to voters.  Based on the speed with which Amendment 2’s numbers eroded once we took to the airwaves, it was clear that the cumulative efforts of the No coalition and the hard work they had done over the course of many months had properly conditioned the battlefield by softening voter support. 

MONEY

Typically, campaigns opposing “medical marijuana” are grossly underfunded, when compared to the campaigns that support it.  In many cases, anti-legalization campaigns are outspent ten-to-one.  That was not the case in Florida. 

The reason? 

Florida is home to Mel and Betty Sembler, two longtime opponents of drug legalization who have dedicated much of their lives to stopping the spread of drug abuse.  They seeded the “NO on 2” campaign with their own money and raised most of the remaining $7 million personally.  Like all of their undertakings, Ambassador and Mrs. Sembler never sought public attention for their efforts.  They simply do what they know is right, regardless of what polls say.  Their humble and serious nature about this very serious issue stands in stark contrast to the proponents of Amendment 2.  Florida owes Mel and Betty Sembler a debt of gratitude.  Knowing and having the opportunity to work with them is a great honor for which I will always be thankful.   

Our campaign budget allowed us to spend $5.6 million on TV and radio ads.  While this is certainly a significant amount of money, it is a modest figure for a statewide campaign in Florida, where the candidates for Governor each benefited from tens of millions of dollars in media spending. 

MEDIA

Now, more than ever, the world communicates via video.  As a result, we created cutting-edge videos and television ads that cut through the clutter and delivered powerful (even controversial) messages that quickly and efficiently moved voters from Yes, to Undecided, to No. 

Our first TV ad—dubbed Not What it Seems—created a buzz among supporters and opponents alike.  The ad addressed Amendment 2’s “drug dealer loophole” and shattered the fantasy that the measure was aimed at helping the truly sick.   

It was effective.  Within days, internal surveys began to show significant movement in our direction.  Viewer recall on this ad was higher than any other.  Our opponents ran a social media campaign and aggressively courted friendly reporters to write negative stories about the ad, which, in turn, drove greater recall.  “NO” campaigns benefit from controversy and debate.  This ad generated both. 

Prior to developing each TV ad, we used a series of public opinion research methods to determine the correct ad executions and sequence and to properly deliver our message.  Our ads were well researched and factual, as well as intentionally eye-catching and provocative—designed to maximize scarce resources while piling up votes in the most efficient markets.

MARGIN

It is tempting for the casual observer, optimistic proponent or sympathetic journalist to look at Amendment 2’s margin of defeat and come to two false conclusions.

False Conclusion 1:  “Even though Amendment 2 failed, it came close and might pass in a presidential cycle when the electorate trends younger and more liberal.”  

Reality Check 1:  The ability of campaigns to raise resources is generally limited by the presumption of what is required to win.  In other words, we raised what was required to keep Amendment 2 under 60%.  If it is on the ballot again, we will raise what is required to keep it under 60% in that particular cycle, regardless of the cycle or likely voter turnout model.

False Conclusion 2:  “Even though Amendment 2 failed to get the supermajority required for passage, it got majority support which should move legislators to approve a similar proposal.” 

Reality Check 2:  Legislators will look to their constituents.  They will more closely look at primary voters within their districts – why? Because most legislative races are decided in primaries.   Amendment 2 exceeded 60% in only 9 of Florida’s 67 counties. It will not be lost on Republican legislators (who now control 81 of 120 House seats) that conservatives opposed Amendment 2 by a 2-to-1 margin.  As Tipp O’Neil famously said “all politics is local.”  And for most legislators, it makes little sense to them locally or within their primaries to liberalize drug laws. 

CONCLUSION

The funny thing about money and message is that you need both – think Laurel & Hardy or Hall & Oates.  States that have fought pot legalization without money have lost even when they had a great message.  While the defeat of Amendment 2 was being predicted starting a couple of weeks before the election, reporters and other pundits told us we had no chance to win at the beginning of the campaign.  One reporter actually said that money didn’t really matter on this issue because people had already made up their minds.  The bottom line is that crafting the right message, having the discipline to stick to it and enough money to deliver it in a persuasive way is what wins elections.  It’s harder than it sounds, and that’s how Amendment 2 was defeated.

There is some speculation about whether the same Amendment, or a version sans loopholes, will be introduced for the 2016 ballot.  The dynamics behind medical marijuana argue that if proponents try again, they will use a similarly broad and flawed amendment.   It is possible that proponents may tweak some loopholes, but the biggest one, which would allow pot to be used for virtually any condition or discomfort, provides for the de facto legalization of marijuana that is the true intent of supporters.  You just need to click through the posts and profiles of the Yes campaign’s Facebook followers, or to watch the video of a now-famous diatribe (and the crowd reaction to it) from the Boots & Buckles lounge, for proof of what Amendment 2, or any successor amendment, is really all about.  Or read Mr. Morgan’s newest interview where he says the following when speculating about 2016, “I may even have two amendments.  I may have the medical marijuana amendment and a full legalization amendment.”  Their campaign was about turning out young voters who want recreational pot, not patients and loved ones in search of treatment. 

Without a doubt there are good people moved by compassion for those who suffer, and who would not want to preclude marijuana as a treatment option.  Unfortunately, that compassion has been successfully preyed upon in other states by those whose true intent is full legalization of pot.  No reasonable person who has seen a picture of Venice Beach in California, or seen how “medical” marijuana was the first step to full legalization in Colorado, Washington State and Oregon could believe otherwise.

If there is another lesson we have learned defeating once-popular ballot initiatives in Florida, from the Sugar Tax to Hometown Democracy, and now Medical Marijuana, it is that long, sustained, smart and well-resourced campaigns against so-called “popular” notions can prevail.  The robust coalition of Sheriffs and other Law Enforcement, Doctors, respected constitutional attorneys, and business leaders and the funders who came together to defeat Amendment 2 remains united and vigilant. 

We are thankful to the people for defeating this dangerous amendment, and are honored to have been a part of it.

[Last modified: Thursday, November 13, 2014 7:30pm]

    

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