In 2020 America, there are precious few issues that Americans of different political persuasion can bring themselves to agree on. Polarization has become so extreme and so normal that even seemingly generic and innocuous policy – such as mask wearing – has become a contentious issue. Bust out a bong however, and the scent in the room is the only thing changing less quickly than the average Floridians’ opinion on the subject.
The decriminalization of marijuana in Florida, along with legalizing it for medical use, now enjoys broad popular support. Legalization for recreational use even garnered over 60% in several 2019 polls. The 60% number is crucial, because in Florida, ballot initiatives require 60% to pass. Yet despite the wide bipartisan support on the subject from Florida’s voters, the state’s politicians (especially the Republicans, but also many Democrats) have been reticent to not only change the laws, but have in fact – cough, cough, Rick Scott – tried their best to subvert the will of the voters and gut the law.
Why is such a winning issue struggling to attract the politicians attention? After all, we are talking about a group of people who will latch on to virtually anything that gets them a few extra votes, and in a state like Florida that could mean everything. By taking a look at the 2014 and 2016 referendums to legalize medical cannabis, identifying the crucial counties (I’m sorry, ET) via the PVI metric (Pot Value Index), and exploring the rise of the most pro-pot politician in Florida – Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried – perhaps more Florida candidates will put their hand in the cannabis jar.
In 2014, Floridians went to the polls for the midterm elections and they re-elected strongly anti-weed Rick Scott for Governor by 1%. At the same time, a law to legalize medical marijuana was on the ballot. Despite Republicans doing extremely well in Florida in 2014 and opposing the marijuana proposal, medical weed “won” easily with over 57%.
However, 57% was not enough. Florida ballot initiatives require 60% to “pass”, so the law failed despite outpolling Gov. Scott by 500,000 votes.
Democratic Gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist lost to Scott by 1% while what I would describe as soft at best support to the law. Not only is finding information and articles about the medical marijuana law hard, it’s also hard to find information on the State Democratic Party’s “support”, which from my memory was nominal at best. But looking at this map, support for the law was strong in “Cristville”, Crist’s home area of Tampa Bay where he has always overperformed. It certainly is interesting to think “what if Crist had gone all in on Yes” against Scott. Crist lost by just 64,000 votes.
Introducing PVI – “Pot Value Index”
Most political observers are familiar with the concept of PVI: Partisan Value Index, long used by Charlie Cook and pretty much now by everyone covering elections and forecasting. I’m not quite Weird Al Yankovic, but I’ve decided to unceremoniously steal PVI and spoof it in much the same way. Let me tell you about Pot Value Index.
It works much the same way as the real PVI does. I took each county’s result in the 2014 medical marijuana referendum and compared it to the state result as a whole. If a county gave weed a 60% Yes Vote, then compared to the 57% Yes vote Statewide, the county would have a Pot Value Index of +3. If a county had a 54% Yes result, its Pot Value Index would be -3, and so on.
Needless to say, quite the map. Heavily conservative counties being more pro-weed than some liberal-leaning ones is the first thing that catches the eye.
Osceola and Miami-Dade have many culturally conservative Hispanic voters who are less likely to support weed than their white or black counterparts. Pensacola (Escambia) being more pro-weed than Jacksonville (Duval), and several highly GOP counties in the Tallahassee (Leon) area also have surprisingly positive PVI.
Its hardly surprising that liberal Broward, Palm Beach, Alachua are massively pro-weed, but what explains Pasco, Sarasota, Volusia, Pinellas, St Lucie, and Monroe, most of which have moved to the right politically during the Trump Era?
Many of these counties have large concentrations of white working class voters who are very supportive of the legalization of marijuana, and on the whole of it, Florida’s coastal counties have a strong pro-marijuana “beach culture”, especially in Monroe, Pinellas, and Volusia.
2016 – The Next Attempt
In 2016, Donald Trump was winning Florida by slightly more than 1% while Sen. Marco Rubio was getting re-elected by about 7%. At the same time, a new medical marijuana law was back on the ballot, this time with more financial support and less opposition; yet statewide Democrats once again made little of the issue.
I don’t remember Democratic Senate candidate Patrick Murphy (who represented pro-weed St Lucie, Martin, and Palm Beach counties) making an issue about it at all. Rubio was against it. Most likely it wasn’t an issue due to it being a federal as opposed to statewide race, but medical marijuana was finally legalized in Florida with an absurd 71.3% of the vote.
Marijuana passed in every congressional and statehouse district, as well as every single county.
The most shocking result however was that despite approximately 3.3 million more votes being cast in 2016 as opposed to 2014, the amount of “No” votes actually fell in almost half of the state, including several large counties! The total No Vote only increased by about 140,000, while the statewide No% dropped from 42% to just 28%.
Many of the larger counties obviously saw increases in the Raw No vote while at the same time giving the Yes vote a higher % than their 2014 result. But many highly populated counties like Duval, Volusia, Brevard, and Pinellas saw big drops.
Quite a few counties saw drops in the No vote while at the same time giving GOP candidates massive margins, like Okaloosa, Marion, Brevard, Lee, St Johns, and many smaller ones. The attitude shift is certainly visible especially in Central and Northeast Florida, and along the eastern seaboard from Melbourne to Jacksonville. This proves that not only was the Yes vote helped by different turnout dynamics, but many conservative and independent voters voted Yes in 2016 after voting No or abstaining in 2014.
Much like the overall map, the 2016 Yes vote increased in every single county, and its clear where the increase in turnout helped the most. Predictably, the big city counties led the way, but again, there were similar large increases in the Yes Vote in populated GOP-leaning counties all over the state, especially Polk, Lee, Lake, Marion, St Johns, Escambia, and Brevard.
2016 Pot Value Index
The 2016 Pot Value Index Map isn’t too far off the 2014 version but there were still noticeable shifts. Okaloosa, Bay, and St Johns all gave weed more than 71% of the vote while giving GOP candidates similarly big percentages. Many coastal, white, wealthier counties have negative PVI, but barely, and they all still gave strong support to Yes. A lot of these counties have also trended a bit to the Democrats during the Trump Era.
The trend is quite clear here and it’s very interesting that PVI rise and fall looks very regional. In the extremely conservative western Panhandle, represented by pro-weed Rep. Matt Gaetz, support for weed outpaced the rest of the state (Gaetz’s support for weed is very smart and well founded, while being pretty out of place for a Republican), while in the ancestrally Democratic old 2nd district (covering the whole purplish area from Liberty to Dixie), it did not. In heavily Democratic Leon and Gadsden, there simply wasn’t much room for growth and those counties still backed the referendum heavily. But in the more rural and conservative counties surrounding Tallahassee, there were only lukewarm rises in the Yes vote compared to 2014.
The Jacksonville region stands out as having the biggest attitude shift in favor, while in Central Florida, attitudes either kept pace with the statewide Yes% increase or saw slight improvements. Heavily conservative Baker County and Sumter County (the latter home to The Villages retirement community) also saw big attitude shifts in support.
Like Leon/Gadsden, South Florida already heavily supported the 2014 referendum and there simply wasn’t much room for growth.
In an upcoming Part II, I will review the 2018 election in Florida and talk about the rise of the most pro-pot politician in Florida History, State Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, and attempt to explore why marijuana legalization hasn’t caught on with the rest of Florida’s politicians. Also, why they should jump on board the the issue that seemingly unites more Floridians in support than any other.