Why Pot Won’t Help Democrats In 2014

Despite party hopes, there’s little evidence that marijuana referenda mobilize young voters to get to the polls.

A photo of President Barack Obama is seen on the cover of the magazine 'Cannabis Now' at the HempCon medical marijuana show, May 24, 2013 at the Los Angeles Convention Center. Thousands of marijuana enthusiasts gathered for the three-day event for exhibits of medical marijuana dispensaries, collectives, evaluation services, legal services and equipment and accessories. Under California state law, people suffering from chronic diseases have the right to grow, buy and use marijuana for medical purposes when recommended by a doctor. In 2003 the Medical Marijuana Protection Act, established an identification card system for medical marijuana patients.
National Journal
Karyn Bruggeman
March 19, 2014, 3:11 p.m.

Demo­crats are hop­ing that grow­ing sup­port for med­ic­al and re­cre­ation­al marijuana can spur party turnout in this year’s midterms, es­pe­cially in get­ting young voters to the polls. But des­pite early op­tim­ism that such ef­forts could be an easy fix to their turnout prob­lems, upon closer re­view, there’s only a loose con­nec­tion between the two.

Voters in at least six states are ex­pec­ted to vote on marijuana ini­ti­at­ives in 2014. The dead­lines for most bal­lot ini­ti­at­ives aren’t un­til the sum­mer in many places, but sig­na­ture-gath­er­ing re­quire­ments are gen­er­ally cum­ber­some enough that oth­ers are un­likely to join at this stage. In four of them — Arkan­sas, Flor­ida, Neb­raska, and Ohio — voters could de­cide wheth­er to al­low med­ic­al marijuana. Ore­gon and Alaska, mean­while, are favored to leg­al­ize the sub­stance. Arkan­sas, Alaska, and Ore­gon are host to com­pet­it­ive Sen­ate races this year, and Arkan­sas, Flor­ida, and Ohio are home to con­tested gubernat­ori­al seats.

Pot earned its repu­ta­tion as a Demo­crat­ic turnout trick in 2012, when meas­ures to ex­pand ac­cess to it ap­peared on the bal­lot in Col­or­ado, Ore­gon, and Wash­ing­ton. In those states, turnout among voters between 18 and 29 spiked, in­creas­ing the youth share of the elect­or­ate between 5 and 12 per­cent­age points from 2008. Na­tion­ally, the share of youth turnout grew by just 1 point between the two elec­tions, from 18 per­cent to 19 per­cent.

In an in­ter­view last month with Polit­ic­al Wire’s Tae­gan God­dard, Demo­crat­ic poll­ster Celinda Lake sug­ges­ted that Demo­crats could try to avoid re­cord-low turnout among young voters this year by push­ing bal­lot ini­ti­at­ives on is­sues young people care about.

“There are a couple of things that could help. In states that al­low them — and there are 16 states that al­low them — ini­ti­at­ives can help. Hav­ing ini­ti­at­ives that deal with stu­dent loans, hav­ing min­im­um wage ini­ti­at­ives, hav­ing ini­ti­at­ives that leg­al­ize marijuana — all of those things can help gen­er­ate turnout be­cause the young people will turn out for the ini­ti­at­ive,” Lake said.

If true, it would be a boon to Demo­crat­ic can­did­ates where the bal­lots ini­ti­at­ives are tak­ing place. The elect­or­ate in midterm elec­tions is less friendly to the party; com­pared with pres­id­en­tial years, voters are older, whiter, and more con­ser­vat­ive. Party strategists have con­tem­plated myri­ad ways to re­verse this trend but have struggled to come up with real­ist­ic plans.

But the con­nec­tion between youth turnout and pot on the bal­lot is tenu­ous — rais­ing the pro­spect that the Demo­crats will again have to look else­where to get mil­len­ni­als to the polls this Novem­ber. In­deed, the Alaska meas­ure is slated to ap­pear on the state’s Au­gust primary bal­lot, which isn’t ideal for boost­ing vul­ner­able Demo­crat Mark Be­gich in the state’s com­pet­it­ive Sen­ate race come Novem­ber. Also over­looked: In the 2010 Cali­for­nia midterms, voters re­jec­ted Pro­pos­i­tion 19 to leg­al­ize pot and young voters ac­tu­ally de­creased as a share of the elect­or­ate between the 2006 and 2010 elec­tions. Eight­een-to 29-year-olds made up 14 per­cent of Golden State voters in 2006, and 13 per­cent in 2010.

Bill Zi­m­mer­man, a Cali­for­nia-based polit­ic­al con­sult­ant, has led sev­en total ini­ti­at­ive cam­paigns for med­ic­al marijuana to date, in­clud­ing the first ever cam­paign in Cali­for­nia in 1996.

“I’ve man­aged sev­en med­ic­al-marijuana ini­ti­at­ives between 1996 and 2000, and we looked very closely for any evid­ence of an in­crease in turnout among young people. We did this be­cause we wanted to know so we could take ad­vant­age of it in sub­sequent elec­tions, but we nev­er saw any evid­ence of it at all,” Zi­m­mer­man said. He also be­lieves sup­port among young voters for leg­al­iz­a­tion in Cali­for­nia in 2010 was off­set by some vot­ing against it be­cause they felt it was too re­strict­ive.

In­deed, un­like re­cre­ation­al pot, ini­ti­at­ives for med­ic­al marijuana have no proven track re­cord of boost­ing turnout in either a midterm or a pres­id­en­tial year, and four of this year’s six pos­sible ini­ti­at­ives are for med­ic­al, not re­cre­ation­al, pot. Ari­zona voted to leg­al­ize med­ic­al marijuana in 2010 and still saw its youth par­ti­cip­a­tion de­crease 2 per­cent­age points from 2006 to 2010. In 2012, a med­ic­al-marijuana ini­ti­at­ive in Mas­sachu­setts co­in­cided with just a 1-point in­crease in turnout — the same per­cent­age it grew na­tion­ally between 2008 and 2012. Michigan also voted to leg­al­ize med­ic­al marijuana in 2008 but not in 2012, and the share of young voters in the over­all elect­or­ate dropped by just 1 per­cent­age point, a mar­gin too small to draw any firm con­nec­tions between med­ic­al bal­lot ini­ti­at­ives and youth turnout.

Zi­m­mer­man is un­con­vinced that even leg­al­iz­a­tion meas­ures drive turnout to any sig­ni­fic­ant ex­tent, mostly be­cause the prime ex­amples co­in­cided with the reelec­tion of one of the na­tion’s most pop­u­lar pres­id­ents among young voters in re­cent his­tory. “The mo­tiv­a­tion that young people had to vote for someone like Obama [in 2008 and 2012] was very power­ful, and I don’t know how to dis­ag­greg­ate that from mo­tiv­a­tion to vote for marijuana,” he said. 

Des­pite this, Demo­crat­ic pro­spects should bright­en in 2016 when or­gan­izers in Ari­zona, Cali­for­nia, and Nevada are lay­ing the ground­work for leg­al­iz­a­tion ini­ti­at­ives. Demo­graph­ics will be more fa­vor­able dur­ing a pres­id­en­tial year, and pub­lic opin­ion will have an ad­di­tion­al two years to shift in fa­vor of pas­sage, of­fer­ing more op­por­tun­it­ies to ex­per­i­ment with marijuana leg­al­iz­a­tion and its im­pact on turnout.

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