A closer look at the SDSU poll: Legal recreational marijuana, SD governor to be decided in final weeks

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Oct. 14—SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — The

latest edition

of the South Dakota State Poll, released in full over the week ending Oct. 14, shows a competitive landscape for many of the 2022 statewide contests and a significant portion of undecided voters that will push either side over the edge in the final sprint to Nov. 8.

Starting Sept. 28, 14,000 registered voters received a mailer with both a QR code and a web link that took them to an online questionnaire. Overall, 565 recipients responded to the poll, and those responses were weighted by gender, age, region and partisanship to reflect the makeup of the state's electorate. The poll has a margin of error of 4% in either direction.

Dr. David Wiltse, the director of the SDSU poll, stressed that the tally is a snapshot in time of the expected electorate, and acknowledged that an especially energized contingent of voters could swing the outcome.

"You just don't know what's going to happen in those four weeks. The margin of error applies not to the ultimate election, but to the time that you took the sample," said Wiltse, an associate professor of political science. "Let's say Democrats for whatever reason do a bang-up job with get-out-the-vote drives. That could do something. Now, generally, parties basically balance each other out when it comes to these things."

Despite that standard qualifier, Wiltse said the SDSU poll team made several design choices intended to wash out any potential bias. For example, expecting that some respondents would leave the poll early, they randomized the section order of questions, and did their best to write neutral presentations of the ballot measures.

While the poll showed a convincing lead for incumbent Sen. John Thune over Democratic challenger Brian Bengs and good news for supporters of Medicaid expansion, it made clear that two of the polled statewide contests — the legalization of cannabis for adult use and the race for governor — will be decided in these final weeks.

In addition to electoral measures, the poll investigated feelings on

access to abortion in South Dakota

, showing a relative split on whether abortion should be legal in the first trimester yet broad support for carve-outs for rape and incest and protecting the health of the mother. The current trigger law in the state does not make exceptions for rape and incest.

In the

governor's race

, the poll showed incumbent Gov. Kristi Noem with a 45-41 lead over Democratic challenger Jamie Smith. The poll did not offer an option for Libertarian candidate Tracey Quint, leaving 14% of respondents in the undecided camp.

Ian Fury, the spokesperson for the Noem campaign, took to social media before the release of the poll to

question the accuracy

of the polling apparatus in general, pointing to an October 2020 poll that showed a slight majority of South Dakotans would support "a policy that would make it mandatory to wear a face covering in all indoor public spaces."

"I don't care in the nicest possible way," Wiltse said of the criticism. "That's his thing. This is our thing. And that's the thing about this poll and all the public stuff that we do. We do our job. We take our measurements of public opinion. We put it out there for people to consume, and they can consume it how they want, they can use it how they want."

Friday's release of the "

feelings thermometer

," which asks respondents to rate their support of certain political figures on a scale of 0-100, tracked well with the findings in the governor's race, with Noem receiving an average score of 46 to Smith's 41.

Among Republicans, Smith's favorability score is 18. Though a low number, it is significantly better than the score of 9 by Joe Biden, an observation that the pollsters wrote "suggests that attempts to link the two together in campaign messaging are having mixed results."

In the contest over Initiated Measure 27, which would legalize cannabis for adult use, the

poll found

a 47-45 split in opposition to the measure with 8% undecided, a result that places the race well within the margin of error.

"They're behind because South Dakota is waking up," said Jim Kinyon, the chair of the opposition group Protecting South Dakota Kids.

Matthew Schweich, the campaign manager for South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws, said a recent internal poll showed 54% in favor of the measure.

"We feel confident that if we run a really strong campaign and we do a good job with turnout, that we're in a position to win," Schweich said.

If the measure passes, it will likely come with elevated youth turnout.

Though the public release did not include a breakdown by age, Wiltse gave Forum News Service an exclusive look at these numbers on the marijuana question, which showed 54-39 support in the under 45 age group, a stark contrast to the 62-29 opposition among those 45 and older.

On Amendment D, which would expand Medicaid in the state, the poll showed a commanding lead for those in favor, by a margin of 53-20. The undecided contingent of 27% was higher than any other question in the poll; many of the undecided voters were Republicans, 42% of whom were unsure of their leanings.

While Zach Marcus, campaign manager for the pro-Amendment D South Dakotans Decide Healthcare, said he was "pleased that the poll shows support from across the partisan spectrum," he thought the support for expansion was likely higher than this topline number due to the lack of a question about which way respondents lean, if any.

"We're approaching our polling differently than a lot of these polling companies that are very often affiliated with, or have close ties to, candidates and parties," Wiltse said of the decision not to prime any respondents for a leaning.

Jason Harward is a

Report for America

corps reporter who writes about state politics in South Dakota. Contact him at