The Marijuana Voter Effect

[ Posted Thursday, August 21st, 2014 – 16:39 UTC ]

Do marijuana legalization ballot initiatives help Democrats at the ballot box? Will Democrats even manage to hold onto the Senate because of pro-marijuana voters up north? These are interesting questions, but I have to say that I'm slightly skeptical that any hard-and-fast answers to such questions will be provided this year. We may not know for certain until after the 2016 election is analyzed, in fact. Which means anyone looking for Democrats to change their behavior might have a long wait in front of them, because if the data's not in until after 2016, then things can't be expected to politically shift in a big way until the 2018 elections -- two full election cycles from now.

The basic idea is a tantalizing one for poll-watchers: the pro-marijuana vote is young, and young people are not known for voting in large numbers (especially in non-presidential elections). If dedicated one-issue voters turn out in droves when marijuana legalization is on the ballot, then Democrats could reasonably expect to benefit, since younger voters also lean pretty heavily Democratic in general. But the situation is a lot more complex than it might seem at first glance.

One of the articles putting forth this notion has plenty of data analysis to back it up, but it may in fact be contradicted by analyzing different voter turnout data (as Nate Silver's site did earlier this year). Was there a big spike in young people voting or not? The jury, it seems, is still out. More evidence is needed. Also, this issue is a fast-changing one in terms of public opinion, so previous data may be seriously obsolete before the next election cycle -- something neither analysis really admits.

There are other complications to the issue, and to analyzing the data as well. Some states still have yet to vote on medical marijuana legalization ballot initiatives (as Florida will do this year), which are different than ballot measures to legalize adult recreational use, both in substance and politically. The two may cause different patterns of turnout, involving different demographics of voters. The biggest problem with drawing any hard causal conclusions to the recreational legalization measures is that, to date, only two have been successful. Two data points don't exactly make a trend, to put it mildly. Most of the other recreational legalization ballot measures happened so long ago that public opinion has shifted dramatically since they were voted upon -- making their data mostly useless now, for predictive purposes. To put this another way, recreational legalization failed on a California ballot in 2010, but this should in no way be seen as an indicator of how it will fare there in, say, 2016.

What Democrats have to say about the issue may matter enormously, as well -- but again, this is a mostly-untested notion, since few Democrats planning on running for national office have declared their support for anything beyond medical marijuana. Many are trying to draw parallels between the turnout patterns seen in Washington and Colorado in 2012 (when voters approved recreational use) with voter turnout patterns seen for anti-gay-marriage ballot initiatives in the past. This is a flawed parallel to draw, for a number of reasons.

The first is the obvious: one is "pro," and one is "anti." Comparing pro-marijuana voters to anti-gay-marriage voters is not exactly an apples-to-apples matchup. The second reason why comparing the two issues' impacts on voter turnout is flawed is how each was treated by the two major political parties. The Republican Party was not just behind the anti-gay-marriage propositions, they created them (in most cases). They saw the issue as a wonderful "wedge" opportunity, to both turn out greater numbers of their own party's base, and -- equally important -- to divide the other party's base. Republicans confidently put "defense of marriage" initiatives on state ballots across the country, knowing they would only be helping their own chances at the ballot box (remember, Proposition 8 passed handily in California in 2008). But Democrats cannot be said to be as enthusiastic about marijuana legalization in the same way (and that is putting it as politely as possible).

Democrats are, to put it bluntly, downright terrified of the issue right now. To be more accurate, Democratic politicians are terrified -- and in exactly the same way they used to be terrified about fully supporting marriage equality (remember: both Obama and Hillary Clinton had to "evolve" on the issue, since they were both against marriage equality in the 2008 race). They are taking a "wait and see" approach (at best) on recreational marijuana -- which is a polite way of saying they're waiting for the people to lead, so they can then follow.

This is why I view exuberant claims that Democrats could hold onto the Senate on the strength of the pro-marijuana vote this year with a very healthy degree of skepticism. This reasoning hinges on how Alaska votes, in essence. Alaska has both a recreational legalization initiative on the ballot, as well as a very close Senate race. A secondary line of this reasoning might include the vote in Oregon as well, which also has a Democratic senator up for re-election.

While mindful that pro-marijuana voters could actually provide this edge, the problem (as previously stated) is going to be a lack of data. Two states voting out of fifty doesn't provide much solid information (especially when added to only two states which have previously approved such initiatives). In Oregon, in particular, you will be able to draw any sort of conclusion you want, because the data will be so contradictory no matter what happens. Oregon voted on a badly-written recreational marijuana initiative in 2012, and the voters rejected it. Add to this the fact that Ron Wyden will probably cruise to re-election -- and would equally have done so even if no initiative had been on the ballot -- and it'll be hard to tease any sort of "this caused that" conclusion no matter what the turnout is in November. Also, Alaska is notoriously hard to accurately poll on any political issue -- even after the election results are in, they may be hard to decipher. It may even take an otherwise-close Senate race in a state where recreational marijuana becomes a major issue in the campaign -- with a Democrat firmly on one side and a Republican on the other -- for such causal conclusions to be accurately drawn.

What is likely going to happen is that we're all going to have to wait to see any sort of "marijuana voter effect," mostly because it's going to take a close race where the Democrat actually favors and supports the issue before any solid conclusions will be able to be drawn. As with any new and contentious issue, sitting officeholders will listen to their campaign consultants who will attempt to state "you'll lose this many voters and gain this many voters" for any particular stance. Losing "X" percent of soccer moms as opposed to picking up "Y" percent of under-30 voters, for instance.

So far, the safe route is "don't say anything" or "be as non-committal as possible." This is seen in both the Oregon and Alaska races, amplified by the fact that in both races Democrats are the incumbents and not the challengers (it's always easier for a challenger to stake out more radical positions than a current officeholder, in other words). A quick look at both the campaign websites and the official Senate websites of both Begich and Wyden show an almost complete lack of any statement whatsoever on legalizing recreational marijuana, even though their states' voters will be deciding the issue this fall. Wyden used to be against it, but that was a number of years ago. Nowadays, he'd much rather talk about his support for growing (non-psychoactive) hemp. Begich has recently stated that he would follow the will of the Alaska voters on the issue and "support their decision" -- which is a convenient way of avoiding any leadership on the issue altogether, but at least is not openly hostile (when California voted on the issue in 2010, the co-chair of the committee against the proposition was Senator Dianne Feinstein, for comparison).

With neither Begich nor Wyden willing to publicly support legalization, it is impossible to tell what the voters will be thinking when they enter the voting booth. In Colorado and Washington, the marijuana initiative got more votes than President Obama in 2012, which meant that a certain percentage of them either voted for Romney or just didn't vote for president. One-issue voters are notorious for having one single litmus test for politicians (as well as ballot initiatives). If the Democratic candidate doesn't support the effort, then that may be enough for these voters to refuse to give the candidate their votes. They may write in "the Zig Zag man" rather than pull the lever for a politician who doesn't support legalization, in other words.

But again, this is all pretty speculative. Getting young people to vote for marijuana legalization may indeed help Democrats in future elections. It may only help Democrats who support such efforts, though. It may actively punish Democrats who openly oppose such initiatives. The only thing which can be said to be certain is that it is too early to tell. We've got two states' data currently, we'll get two more (plus Washington D.C.) this year, but it may take until after 2016 (when there may be a wave of such ballot measures, to capitalize on the presidential year) to really know anything about how marijuana legalization affects voting patterns. It's fine to get a little optimistic about possible "marijuana voter effects," but it'll be quite some time before we'll have any kind of definitive measure.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


9 Comments on “The Marijuana Voter Effect”

  1. [1] 
    John From Censornati wrote:

    If only we could test this in a few more states . . .

  2. [2] 
    John From Censornati wrote:

    Maybe a ballot initiative could be offered that guarantees a person's religious freedom to not get gay-married while they get high? I'm more interested in ending The War On Some Drugs than benefiting the Dems and I think it could work.

  3. [3] 
    Michale wrote:

    If only we could test this in a few more states . . .

    If only someone would man up and issue an apology for false accusations...

    "If only... If only...."
    -Hades, HERCULES



  4. [4] 
    TheStig wrote:

    "Democratic politicians are terrified"

    of all the potential negative ad money in the hands of corporate institutions that depend on NeoProhibition for their cash flow.

    ...waiting for the people to lead, so they can then follow."

    The Marijuana movement needs to demonstrate to Democrats that it is no longer a guerrilla political movement. It needs to thinking and act as a full fledged corporation with tremendous growth potential. More suits, fewer stoners. Or at least stoners in suits. Oh, the horror!

  5. [5] 
    Michale wrote:

    More suits, fewer stoners. Or at least stoners in suits. Oh, the horror!

    Maybe it's the cop in me, but I just fail to see the attraction of a society of stoners..

    In OR out of suits...


  6. [6] 
    dsws wrote:

    it's going to take a close race where the Democrat actually favors and supports the issue before any solid conclusions will be able to be drawn

    Why? The hypothesized mechanism has nothing to do with the candidate's position on Prohibition: people sometimes vote, and sometimes don't; if they do vote, it's well-nigh guaranteed that a large and stable percentage of them will vote the way their group always does (if it votes at all), almost no matter who the candidate is and almost no matter what he or she says; if there's an initiative on the ballot, different numbers of people from various demographic slices will vote, than would have without the ballot question. The candidate's position on any particular issue, or even whether the candidate is a member of Homo sapiens sapiens or Canis lupus familiaris luteus, doesn't enter into it.

  7. [7] 
    Pastafarian Dan wrote:

    Maybe it's the cop in me, but I just fail to see the attraction of a society of stoners..

    In OR out of suits...

    How can it be worse than our current society of drunks in suits (and behind the wheels of cars).
    Stoners are also, as a rule, less aggressive than drunks.

  8. [8] 
    Michale wrote:

    Stoners are also, as a rule, less aggressive than drunks.

    Current Events evidence to the contrary.. :D

    How can it be worse than our current society of drunks in suits (and behind the wheels of cars).

    Be careful what you wish for.. :D


  9. [9] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    dsws -

    Good point. My argument was really about proving causality, which is always problematic. When writing the article, I actually typed out the sentence "Causality's a bitch," but then I thought better of it and deleted it.

    You're right -- given enough data, it wouldn't matter what the politician's stance was, because you could draw some conclusions about turnout and how the vote went. My point was that it would be a lot easier to do so in a race where the politicians had taken a stand, because it wouldn't be disputed by anyone (battles about causality in elections rage, on a number of issues).

    But you're right -- I made the point poorly, with too sweeping a statement.

    Mea culpa.


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