Fred Grimm: Florida Democrats are hoping pot issue will pull young voters to the polls

08/16/2014 4:16 PM

09/12/2014 7:44 PM

It’s an electoral strategy complicated by a smoky paradox. That a mighty hoard of sluggards will rouse themselves from their stupor and decide the fall election.

Maybe it’s more hope than strategy. Florida Democrats think young voters, who usually can’t be bothered with elections in non-presidential years, will shake off their indolent ways this fall. That they’ll be motivated by the medical marijuana initiative on the fall ballot. And, when the pot smoke clears, that Gov. Rick Scott will have become so much collateral damage.

Seems a bit tenuous, given that marijuana is generally not known as a stimulant. Whatever other medical properties have been attributed to the drug, I’ve never heard anyone suggest that pot cures apathy. It’s hard to imagine a great outpouring of stoners and slackers stampeding to the polls.

But Republicans, who rely on their cadre of cranky old conservatives to dominate mid-term elections, seem worried. And irritated. “The real motivation of Amendment Two’s authors is to stimulate young, liberal Democratic voters to go to the polls on Nov. 4 to vote for the Democratic candidate for governor. How duplicitous,” complained Barney Bishop III, former president of Associated Industries of Florida, one of the state's more powerful business lobbies. (In an op-ed written for the Sun-Sentinel).

Of course, the Republicans employed a similar strategy back in the 2004 presidential campaign, when Karl Rove launched his “Guns, God and Gays” agenda and exploited a number of state anti-gay marriage referendums to bring out the party’s evangelical base.

Gay-bashing has since gone out of style among Republicans, worried about the growing perception that their party was devolving into a collection of aging, socially backward, perpetually angry anachronisms. But the swing — more like a lurch — in public attitudes toward pot has them flummoxed.

But not Jeb Bush. Unlike his mush-mouthed party compatriots, the former governor has made it plain that, polls be damned, he was against Amendment Two. Bush (who apparently hasn’t spent much time clubbing on South Beach) released a statement last week that medical marijuana would damage the state’s reputation as a “world-class location to start or run a business, a family-friendly destination for tourism and a desirable place to raise a family or retire.”

Except national public attitudes have become so permissive toward marijuana, it’s hard to imagine that tourists or retirees or businesses would eschew Florida because voters here approved the use of medical marijuana. Surely folks living in one of the 23 states and the District of Columbia that have already legalized medical marijuana wouldn’t stay away because Floridians embrace a similar law.

Besides, Jeb’s imagined flocks of anti-pot tourists and retirees and snowbirds has become an ever-diminishing portion of the population. A Gallup poll taken last fall found that 58 percent of American favored outright legalization of marijuana (up from 12 percent when Gallup took a similar poll in 1969.)

Gallup found that Americans 65 and older were the only age group with a majority still opposed to legalizing marijuana, although 45 percent of the oldsters favored pot. Among Americans between 30 and 64, 62 percent favor legalization. In the 18-to-21 category, the poll found an overwhelming 67 percent.

In Florida, support for medical pot, at least in the polls, has become overwhelming. And startling. A Quinnipiac University last month found 88 percent of the voters favor Amendment Two.

Among that elusive 18-29 bunch, an incredible 95 percent said they’ll vote yes. That is, if they actually vote.

When Colorado approved recreational marijuana in 2012, the 18-29 segment represented 20 percent of the voters, compared to just 14 percent in the 2008 election. In Washington state, a similar referendum boosted the youth vote from 10 percent to 22 percent. Oregon, which rejected a recreational pot initiative in 2012, saw the 18-29 turnout rise from 12 percent in 2008 to 17 percent.

But perhaps the prospect of recreational marijuana provides a bit more motivation among young voters than medical marijuana. The young, after all, don’t suffer so many of the chronic physical discomforts that marijuana might relieve.

A national poll of young voters conducted last spring by the Harvard’s Institute of Politics didn’t bode well for a big turnout among the 18-29 crowd this fall. Only 23 percent indicated that they would “definitely be voting” in the November general election (down from 35 percent just five months earlier.)

“The Institute’s spring poll indicated that 18-to-29-year-olds’ trust in public institutions at a five-year low — and their cynicism toward the political process has never been higher,” Harvard Institute of Politics director Trey Grayson said.

John Della Volpe, the institute's director of polls was not optimistic they’d show up this fall. “It’s been clear for some time now that young people are growing more disillusioned and disconnected from Washington,” he said. “There’s an erosion of trust in the individuals and institutions that make government work — and now we see the lowest level of interest in any election we’ve measured since 2000.”

If young voters were cynical about the political process in the spring, imagine their attitude by November, after an election season in Florida dominated by an onslaught of vicious attack ads, ripping away at voter trust and candidate reputations, fueled by $200 million in out-of-state PAC money. After this mind-numbing horror show, it will be a wonder if young voters will be able to rouse themselves out of bed come election day.

Opponents only need a single vote over 40 percent to stop Amendment Two. They've got Jeb and the Chamber of Commerce and law enforcement groups fighting this. (Rick Scott is officially opposed, but Scott, lately, refrains from a show of fervor on any divisive issue.) And they’ve got $2.5 million from casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson to fund the anti-pot campaign.

Meanwhile, Democrats, who overwhelming express support of Amendment Two when they talk to pollsters, are notoriously lazy in off-year elections. Especially young Dems. So the outcome in November could be much closer than the opinion polls indicate.

Though it may be that after months of enduring malicious campaign ads and nasty robo calls, the shell-shocked electorate will decide that voting for Amendment Two had become an urgent civic duty, because only medical marijuana has brought relief to folks exposed to Florida’s malignant and ever metastasizing politics.

About Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm

@grimm_fred

Fred Grimm joined the Herald in 1976. Since 1991 he has written a column about crime, politics and life in Broward.

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