Joshua Green at The Atlantic writes about the impact that marijuana legalization initiatives will have on partisan races:
I have a short piece in the current Atlantic about the marijuana ballot initiatives sweeping the country. (Paul Starobin also has an excellent cover story in National Journal.) But one issue nobody has examined is what effect these initiatives have on candidates’ performance at the polls. Acting on a tip from an Obama official, I found a few Democratic consultants who have become convinced that ballot initiatives legalizing marijuana, like the one Californians will vote on in November, actually help Democrats in the same way that gay marriage bans were supposed to have helped Republicans. They are similarly popular, with medical marijuana having passed in 14 states (and the District of Columbia) where it has appeared on the ballot. In a recent poll, 56 percent of Californians said they favor the upcoming initiative to legalize and tax pot.
The idea that this helps Democrats is based on the demographic profile of who shows up to vote for marijuana initiatives–and wouldn’t show up otherwise. “If you look at who turns out to vote for marijuana,” says Jim Merlino, a consultant in Colorado, which passed initiatives in 2000 and 2006, “they’re generally under 35. And young people tend to vote Democratic.” This influx of new voters, he believes, helps Democrats up and down the ticket.
I think it’s hard to argue with that. Younger people today are voting overwhelmingly for Democrats, so if you have an initiative that motivates more young people to vote, Democrats on the ballot will get a boost. But in California, where Proposition 19 will be voted on this fall, the picture may not be so clear.
The reason is because both Barbara Boxer and Jerry Brown, the two Democrats running for statewide offices this year, both came out against the initiative. And they didn’t just check some checkbox somewhere saying that they were against it. They went full-on drug warrior with their public statements.
Boxer’s campaign put out a statement saying that it would lead to an increase in crime, and that law enforcement costs would go up. Just to underscore how ludicrous that statement is, the official ballot argument for Proposition 19 was signed by a former police chief, a former deputy chief, and a former judge.
Jerry Brown put out an even more ridiculous statement in opposition to Proposition 19 saying that it would open the floodgates for Mexican drug cartels. Jon Walker does an excellent job here drawing the parallels to alcohol prohibition and explaining why Brown’s statement makes absolutely no sense.
The recent polling for both Boxer and Brown hasn’t been good. Brown is trailing Meg Whitman in the Governor’s race. And in recent months, Boxer’s favorability numbers have taken a hit and she’s in a dead heat with Carly Fiorina. Her decline probably has a series of factors, but her opposition to the marijuana initiative is likely playing some non-trivial role in it.
I feel confident in saying that for two reasons. One, it’s an issue that puts her in direct opposition to her base (69% of self-described liberals support it according to the latest Survey USA poll). And two, I tend to think that while very few voters consider marijuana to be a major issue, a lot more of them have a strong enough opinion about the issue (and understand it well enough) for it to play into their overall perceptions of how the candidates would deal with issues more pressing, like the economy or health care. Boxer is being painted as an out-of-touch DC insider who caters to government interests. Her position on marijuana just plays right into that stereotype.
So how is this going to end up? Will the benefits to California’s big ticket Democrats from additional young voter participation due to Proposition 19 be counteracted by both Boxer’s and Brown’s laughable public stances on it? Someone with more time and resources than me could potentially put together some good poll questions to explore that, or to do some statistical analysis from existing polls. But what’s clear is that even if Democratic consultants see the benefit of having marijuana initiatives on the ballot, they apparently still don’t see the benefit of actually endorsing them.
UPDATE: Here’s an interesting report in the San Francisco Chronicle about Boxer and her polling woes:
Boxer’s slight numerical lead masks potentially serious problems for the senator, starting with how 52 percent of the respondents hold an unfavorable view of her.
At the same time, her job approval rating is among the lowest that Field has measured for her since she was first elected to the Senate in 1992: 43 percent of registered voters disapprove of her performance while 42 percent approve. Among likely voters, 48 percent disapprove and 42 percent approve.
“It’s a reflection of the effectiveness of a Republican strategy to characterize Sen. Boxer as everything that’s wrong with the government,” said Larry Berman, a professor of political science at UC Davis. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., another longtime Democrat facing a tough re-election challenge, faces a similar predicament, Berman said.
As I mentioned above, the job of characterizing Senator Boxer as “everything that’s wrong with the government” becomes a lot easier when Boxer herself takes a position on the marijuana initiative that large numbers of both her base and independents understand as being “something that’s wrong with the government”.