Political consultant Tre’ Evers dissects how Amendment 2 was defeated

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A smart, sustained and well-resourced movement is what ultimately brought down the once-popular Amendment 2 on Election Day, says veteran Florida political consultant Tre’ Evers.

Evers, a Republican consultant and head of public relations firm Consensus Communication, was a key player in the Vote No on 2 campaign, which helped defeat legalizing medical marijuana in Florida.

In his post-election review of data and results, Evers assessed the Vote No on 2 strategy. It was an impressive effort that overpowered a proposal initially backed by more than 80 percent of Floridians — if the Quinnipiac University survey from this summer can be believed.

“Some pundits say poor amendment wording caused Amendment 2’s demise,” Evers says in an email to supporters. “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.”

In reality, it was a combination of those and other factors, Evers notes.

Although Evers resists going into every detail of his Nov. 4 victory – another campaign on the medical marijuana may be on the horizon — he does pull back the curtain slightly to reveal his plan of attack.

Evers’ first challenge was realizing that Amendment 2 (and all ballot initiatives) are fundamentally unlike candidate campaigns. This means once a constitutional amendment is on the ballot, it cannot be changed, modified or “fixed.”

That inflexibility became the foundation of the Vote No on 2 campaign, which focused on the language of the amendment, which critics called “loopholes.”

Instead of focusing on the imperfections and foibles of Amendment 2 supporters, Evans says the majority of the attention went to the “merits of the issue.” Guiding the debate to the loopholes was key, since the language was set in stone, unlike candidates who can change their minds.

If staying on message was one pillar of the Vote No on 2 campaign, another was the messengers. Among the Amendment 2 skeptics were a list of well-vetted and credible experts: constitutional attorneys, medical professionals, law enforcement officials, drug treatment professionals and seven former Florida Supreme Court justices.

These groups, including nearly every sheriff in Florida, led by Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, helped bring the message home to voters. Judd and other sheriffs were almost omnipresent: debating opponents, holding meetings, writing op-eds and speaking to churches and community groups.

Social media also played a vital role, where Vote No on 2’s Facebook presence – nearly 40,000 supporters strong — became the 21st century equivalent of door-to-door canvassing.

In most anti-medical marijuana campaigns, underfunding becomes the major roadblock; not so in Florida.

Mel Sembler, the St. Petersburg developer who is a longtime opponent of drug legalization, seeded the Vote No on 2 campaign, much of it out of his own pocket. Mel and his wife Betty helped raise the remaining $7 million, which gave the campaign its punch. Florida owes both Mel and Betty a debt of gratitude, Evers says.

Most of that money went to “cutting-edge” video, which Evers calls the primary communication tool for the world. Evers developed video and television ads that “cut through the clutter” to deliver a powerful message that moved many voters from Yes, to Undecided, and then to No.

The campaign’s first TV ad — “Not What it Seems” — created a buzz with both supporters and opponents. Bolstered by public opinion research, the ad addressed the “drug dealer loophole” (the key talking point for Vote No on 2) and “shattered the fantasy” that Amendment 2 was aimed solely at helping the sick.

For Evers, what ultimately defeated medical marijuana in Florida was a combination of the right message, a discipline to stay on point and raising money. It is how elections are won – now and in the future.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.