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Urban vote key in GMO campaign

The fate of Oregon’s genetically modified organism labeling initiative will hinge on whether heavy spending by opponents can overcome the liberal leanings of urban voters, experts believe.

Dueling campaigns on Measure 92 — which would require labeling of foods containing GMOs — will soon be operating at full throttle now that Labor Day has passed, political analysts agree.

What’s far less certain is whether Oregon will buck the trend of biotech proponents defeating GMO labeling initiatives with well-funded campaign efforts, as occurred in Washington and California.

Political analysts believe it’s a foregone conclusion that opponents of GMO labeling will outspend the measure’s supporters, as in the other states. Urban voters, who have a powerful influence over Oregon politics, may tend to agree with GMO labeling, but experts have varying perspectives on how that demographic will affect the election.

Russ Dondero, a retired Pacific University political science professor, said the Portland area is a “built in yes vote” for Measure 92. Opponents of GMO labeling face an uphill battle because other communities in western Oregon — where most of the population lives — also appear sympathetic to the measure, according to Dondero.

Proponents of labeling have also been working for about two years to bring attention to the issue and collect signatures in favor of the ballot initiative, giving them a head start in shaping the discussion.

“If you can control the narrative of the debate, you can win,” Dondero said.

Despite the demographic advantage enjoyed by labeling proponents, their victory is by no means certain, said Len Bergstein, president of Northwest Strategies and a political analyst.

The 2014 election will not decide a presidential contest, so the outlook for voter turnout is ambiguous, he contends. It’s unclear how motivated the urban population is to vote on the GMO labeling issue.

“The question of who will actually show up will decide this issue,” Bergstein explained.

The GMO labeling measure and another initiative that would legalize recreational marijuana are among the most visible issues in the election, but support for these measures doesn’t necessarily neatly overlap, he said. While the “hip crowd” may be aligned in support of both initiatives, other voters may oppose one and support the other, Bergstein believes.

More regulation?

The marijuana measure appeals to libertarian voters, who want less government control, while the GMO labeling measure calls for more regulation, he said.

Bill Lunch, a retired political science professor at Oregon State University and a longtime state political pundit, said Oregon’s large population of liberal urban voters is not an insurmountable obstacle for opponents of GMO labeling. Washington has an even larger urban population, but voters rejected a similar GMO labeling initiative last year, Lunch said.

The three largest Seattle-area counties have nearly 52 percent of Washington’s population, while the three largest Portland-area counties have 43 percent of Oregon’s population, according to U.S. Census data.

“The opponents have the upper hand,” said Lunch. “If they won in Washington, they should be able to win in Oregon.”

The “big caveat” is that voters in southern Oregon’s Jackson and Josephine counties approved GMO bans earlier this year, which shows that critics of biotechnology have made headway in rural areas, he said.

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