Pot Smokes Jobs as Colorado Race Seen Turning on Social Issues

Marijuana Dispensary
Marijuana saleswoman Marissa Dodd talks to a customer about different varieties of marijuana available at the Dr. Reefer marijuana dispensary at the University of Colorado in Boulder, Colorado. Photographer: Chris Hondros/Getty Images

In a presidential campaign dominated by anxiety over jobs, the vote in Colorado may turn on two issues that have more to do with personal freedom than economic security: gay unions and marijuana.

Both ballot issues will boost turnout in one of the nation’s closest battleground states at a time when many people already will be motivated to vote because of Colorado’s stubbornly high unemployment rate.

Turnout will be critical in a state where separate polls on consecutive days this month showed President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney with slight leads.

Republicans say Romney will pick up independent voters in suburban Denver, which could deny the president a repeat of his 2008 Colorado victory. Obama could be helped by young voters energized by those social issues.

“Here in Colorado over the last eight years, the Democrats are well aware that they win elections when they can paint Republicans as social conservatives,” said Bob Loevy, a Republican and a retired political science professor at Colorado Springs-based Colorado College.

The Republican-controlled legislature rejected a measure in May that would have allowed gay couples to inherit each other’s property and take family leave. That was after Governor John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, called a special session because Republicans had killed the bill during the regular term.

Evenly Split

Polls showed the outcome might give Obama a boost. The state’s 3.4 million registered voters are evenly split among Republicans, Democrats and the unaffiliated, and three-quarters of independents said they supported the gay civil-union measure.

The president declared his support for same-sex marriage in May, just as the Colorado fight over gay civil unions peaked. Romney has said he favors a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman.

In addition, a ballot initiative would give Colorado the nation’s most liberal marijuana law, legalizing possession of as much as one ounce for recreational use by those 21 and older. The proposal appeals to younger voters, said Brian Vicente, a Denver lawyer and co-director of the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol.

Changing Demographics

The issues show how Colorado’s changing demographics, with increasing numbers of independent and Hispanic voters, may affect the dynamics in this fall’s election.

The economy is still a powerful issue. Unemployment reached 8.3 percent in July, matching the national rate, after rising for four straight months. In a barrage of television advertisements, Republicans accused Obama of mismanaging the economy, while Democrats hammered at Romney’s positions on abortion and gay rights.

Romney will need to woo independent voters in suburban counties such as Jefferson and Arapahoe, which border Denver on the south and west, and in Larimer County, home of Fort Collins. Both candidates are targeting Hispanics, who account for about 20 percent of the population, by cooperating with Latino organizations on get-out-the-vote efforts. Obama won about two-thirds of Colorado’s Hispanic vote in 2008, exit polls showed.

Republican consultant Ladonna Lee in Fort Collins said Romney needs to zero in on independent voters with a simple message: Is this the change you were looking for?

‘Delivered, Promised’

“Romney has to keep the focus on the change Obama delivered rather than the change Obama promised. It’s got to be, ‘Is this the change you have voted for? Has he delivered on that promise?’” said Lee, who works at the law firm Foley & Lardner LLP.

Loevy, the retired professor, said the Democratic vote in Denver, Boulder and in the popular skiing destinations will be “offset by a heavy Republican vote in Colorado Springs, Greeley and Douglas County -- a distant suburb of Denver.” In 2008, Obama was the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry Jefferson and Arapahoe counties, he said.

One person could be pivotal in deciding who wins Colorado’s nine electoral votes: Gary Johnson, New Mexico’s former Republican governor who is the Libertarian Party’s presidential candidate and could qualify for a ballot spot next month.

Many Colorado voters look favorably on Johnson’s support for gay marriage and legalized marijuana, says Rick Ridder, a Democratic consultant. As a candidate, Johnson, 59, might win young voters because of his support for legalizing marijuana, denting Obama’s youth vote.

“There is a recent history here of third-party candidates doing well,” Ridder said.

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