The Politics Blog

I-522: New poll shows big swing in voters’ view of GMO labeling

OlympianOctober 21, 2013 

This post is updated.

Some of those television ads in the Initiative 522 campaign appear to be working, turning many Washington voters against mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods. After a several-week-long onslaught of television ads that has run heavier on the No on 522 side, I-522 is now favored by just 46 percent of voters while 42 percent oppose it, The Elway Poll reported Monday.

That contrasts with a month ago when Stuart Elway’s polling showed the campaign to require packaging labels for genetically modified or engineered foods and seeds was leading by a 66 percent to 21 percent margin. Elway said it looks like the biggest momentum swing he’s seen in an initiative after decades of polling.

The poll comes out as the Yes on 522 campaign is launching an ad featuring Michael Hansen, a senior scientist at Consumers Union, saying the consumer group strongly supports I-522 and labeling.

But opponents have raised $17.2 million and spent $13.5 million, giving them plenty more in the arsenal, according to the latest data on file with the state Public Disclosure Commission. Most of that cash comes from food makers and major agribusiness firms like Monsanto.

By contrast, proponents’ various PACs - funded substantially by whole-foods groups - have raised more than $6.6 million and Yes on 522 has spent all but about $600,000 it has raised. 

I-522 is on its way to becoming the most expensive initiative campaign in state history, and Elway said opponents have a slight advertising edge. Of those seeing both pro and con ads, he said 47 percent opposed I-522 while 43 percent favored it – while those claiming not to have seen any ads favored I-522 by 17 point margin.

Both of Elway’s polls on I-522 had 12 percent of voters marked as undecided. The new poll talked to 413 registered voters on Oct. 15-17 and the margin of error was plus/minus 5 percent.

The new poll found voters are giving reasons for backing or opposing the measure that are similar to each campaign’s talking points. For instance, among supporters, 41 percent said their reason to vote yes was that they wanted to know what they were eating, while 1 percent said consumers have a right to know and 11 percent said food should be labeled.

On the other side, 17 percent said labels were not needed, 16 percent said food costs would rise and 14 percent said it was poorly written or had many exemptions.

Few on either side are citing food safety or feelings about eating genetically modified foods (4 percent said GM foods are bad for health, 4 percent want to avoid eating them and  percent say GM foods are safe).

Elway gave Yes on 522 backers one historical reason to hope despite their sudden setback in polling. Since 1992, his polling showed that 17 of 22 initiatives that were ahead with at least 60 percent support in September went on to win. But Elway added in an interview, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen this much momentum’’ shifting so quickly.

“It’s obvious that the more people know about 522 the less they like it. Voters are seeing through the proponent’s misleading initiative and misleading campaign,” No on 522 campaign spokeswoman Dana Bieber contended in an email.

The Yes on 522 campaign put a positive spin on the results, saying they were still winning.

“I think this poll shows that despite being outspent 3-to-1 for weeks now, Washingtonians, fundamentally, want more information about their groceries and how they were produced,” Yes on 522 spokeswoman Elizabeth Larter said in an email.

Larter added that the apparent huge switch of voters from pro to con positions is different than in California, where late ad blitzes sank the Proposition 37 labeling effort last year. In California, she said: “The Yes side let the opposition go on the air for 10 days without putting up an ad (because) they didn't have enough money for the expensive (California) media markets. For I-522: We've been on the air the same amount of time the No side has. Clearly, Washingtonians care about knowing about what's in their food.”

UPDATED: I earlier questioned Larter’s claim of being outspent three-to-one, and my point was not quite correct. That is because I double-counted money raised by the Organic Consumers Fund that was later transferred to Yes on 522. So, after making adjustments and recounting, it appears the No on 522 campaign has raised $17.2 million, which is not quite three times more than the $6.07 million raised by the Yes on 522 campaign committee itself. It also is at least two-and-a-half times what Yes on 522 and various other campaigns have raised first to qualify I-522 as an initiative to the Legislature last year and to campaign for it on the ballot this year.

Both sides appear to be stretching the facts on what impact the measure might have, including costs for consumers.

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