SACRAMENTO — Once riding high, Proposition 37, the statewide ballot measure to label genetically engineered foods, has seen its voter support plummet during the last month, and a new poll shows the high-stakes battle now is a dead heat.
After a barrage of negative television advertisements financed by a $41-million opposition war chest, a USC Dornsife / Los Angeles Times poll released Thursday showed 44% of surveyed voters backing the initiative and 42% opposing it. A substantial slice of the electorate, 14%, remains undecided or unwilling to take a position.
The critical drumbeat of television advertising is having a big effect, voters said. The anti-Proposition 37 spots "made me start looking more into" the issue of genetically engineered plants, said Josie Prendez, 63, a retired school employee in Fresno. She said she concluded that farmers should not be hit with more regulations.
Alfred Ballabio, 24, of Santa Barbara told pollsters he favored the measure because he "can't imagine people not wanting to know" what's in their food. But the employee of his family's Santa Barbara wholesale meat and fish business said he's concerned that the negative advertising could contribute to Proposition 37's defeat. "From what I've heard in the last few days, I don't think it's going to pass," he said.
The initiative, if approved, would make California the first state to require labels on genetically engineered crops or processed foods, such as most corn, soybeans, sugar beets and Hawaiian papayas. It would require labels on supermarket shelves, food packages or produce bins.
The momentum, with less than two weeks before the election, appears to be on the side of opponents. Over the last month, support for the initiative dropped 17 percentage points and opposition grew by the same amount. A previous USC Dornsife / Los Angeles Times poll taken Sept. 17 to 23 had 61% in favor, 25% opposed and 14% undecided.
The increase in opposition shows "some pretty strong momentum," said David Kanevsky, a pollster with American Viewpoint, the Republican half of the bipartisan team of polling firms that conducted the survey. "The Yes side has to pretty quickly arrest that."
Proposition 37 "is not dead in the water," said pollster Drew Lieberman of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, the Democratic counterpart. He cautioned, however, that "conventional wisdom says something that's under 50% and tied … is not likely to pass."
The polling firms jointly conducted the poll for the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and the Los Angeles Times. The telephone survey of 1,504 registered voters around the state, was conducted Oct. 15 to Oct. 21. It has a margin of error of 2.9 percentage points.
Proposition 37 spokeswoman Stacy Malkan was unruffled by the poll results and said the campaign plans to launch its own television advertising campaign this week.
"We're still in the game. Our polls show that when people see our messages — that people have a right to know what's in their food — the yes votes go back up," she said. "We're going to raise as much money as we can to get our message out to voters."
Meanwhile, the opposition campaign said it is concentrating on telling voters that Proposition 37 is far from "a simple labeling measure." It will raise food prices, increase government bureaucracy and spur lawsuits, campaign spokeswoman Kathy Fairbanks said.
"We've been encouraging voters to look into the details and evaluate whether they want to live with the consequences of Proposition 37," she said. "The loss of support indicates they don't."
The opposition campaign is being bankrolled by biotech giants such as Monsanto Co. and food and soft drink manufacturers, including Coca-Cola Co., Pepsico Inc. and Nestle USA Inc. It's saturating broadcast and cable television with a series of television spots featuring doctors, scientists and farmers criticizing Proposition 37. The spots hammer Proposition 37 for using alleged non-scientific scare tactics, providing confusing exemptions of certain foods and potentially driving up grocery costs.
With $41 million in contributions, opponents have plenty of financial resources to keep pounding voters with negative messages about Proposition 37., while
Proponents have reported $6.7 million in contributions, most of which has come from organic food growers, retailers and consumer groups as well as Mercola.com Health Resources, a privately held Illinois company that operates a "natural health" website, and Kent Whealy, the founder of the Seed Savers Exchange, a nonprofit organization that seeks to preserve seeds for heirloom plants.
The opposition advertising is paying off, said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC and former Republican political strategist. "The challenge for the opposition is to convince voters there are economic consequences involved here. It appears they are in the process of doing that."