Colorado has emerged as an important swing state in presidential elections, one reason why Democrats chose to hold their 2008 national convention in Denver. This year, the state will be no less crucial to the election, and probably more so to President Obama, given his weakening support in the Midwest. A new Rasmussen survey shows the state split evenly between Obama and Mitt Romney at 45 percent.
That’s why the news that Coloradans will vote on a ballot initiative to legalize marijuana this November is so interesting. It might affect the composition of the electorate in a way that could potentially swing the state’s presidential contest and even the election.
In 2004, Karl Rove and the Republicans pushed a series of state ballot initiatives on gay marriage that were intended in part to help George W. Bush win reelection. The idea was that evangelicals who might not be so hot on Bush would show up to vote against gay marriage and pull the lever for the president while they were at it. The evidence on how well this ploy worked isn’t conclusive. But Bush won.
Although Colorado’s marijuana initiative wasn’t created to help Obama, a cohort of Democratic strategists believe that it might. Their reasoning is the same as Rove’s in 2004, although they obviously have a different audience in mind: pot-loving Coloradans who aren’t all that jazzed about Obama might show up to vote for legalization and cast a vote for the president at the same time.
Two years ago, this would have been a more persuasive theory. The legalization crowd was huge for Obama in 2008, because he indicated that he held a benign view of medical marijuana. In the past couple years, though, the Justice Department has cracked down on state-legal marijuana establishments, upsetting many activists.
On the other hand, it’s impossible to imagine anyone who gives a rip about marijuana casting their ballot for a square like Mitt Romney. In Thursday’s New York Times, Mike Barbaro has a hilarious story about Romney scolding some San Diego beachgoer for smoking pot and then narc-ing on him to the cops. That’s why some Democrats hold out hope that this could help their cause. And because Colorado has twice before voted on marijuana initiatives, in 2000 and 2006, the parties have a pretty good idea of who’s likely to show up.
“If you look at who turns out to vote for marijuana,” Jim Merlino, a political consultant in Colorado, told me a while back, “they’re generally under 35. And young people tend to vote Democratic.” Pot enthusiasts also tend to be—no shock here—not the most committed to civic participation, so there’s no guarantee they’d come out to vote for Obama absent the initiative. That means Obama could benefit from an influx of new voters who wouldn’t otherwise show up. And in a tight race, that could be enough to put him over the top.