How Marijuana Could Tip the Election

In Colorado, state lawmakers are attempting an end run around the federal ban on medical marijuana by creating a cooperative financial institution for state dispensaries Photograph by Ed Andrieski/AP Photo

Election Day is a time for indulging weird, wild, and unlikely scenarios of what could play out and how—because there’s nothing else to do while we wait for real numbers to come in. With that in mind, here’s a fun, not entirely implausible scenario in which marijuana could decide the presidential election.

In 2010, when Californians were about to vote on a ballot initiative legalizing medical marijuana, I spoke to a Democratic consultant in Colorado, Jim Merlino, who had an intriguing theory about how the initiative might help Democrats up and down the ticket. It went like this: Having marijuana on the ballot would activate a group of voters who don’t usually participate in elections—mainly younger voters who, perhaps by dint of their fondness for pot, are not the most civically engaged. Young voters, he pointed out, overwhelmingly favor Democrats. Lured to the polls by the chance to vote for weed, these youngsters would presumably pull the lever for the Democratic ticket while they were there. In a sense, this is the same dynamic Karl Rove and Republicans created in 2004 by placing anti-gay-marriage initiatives on state ballots across the country—the idea being that evangelicals who weren’t wild about George W. Bush would show up to “protect traditional marriage” and vote Bush while they were there.

“Neat theory,” I thought to myself. “But is it plausible?” As it turns out, there’s at least some basis for thinking that it might be. Stephen Nicholson, a social scientist at the University of California, Merced and an expert on ballot initiatives, pointed me to an interesting parallel: the 1982 nuclear-freeze initiatives. “In the 1982 midterms, 10 states had ballot initiatives on the nuclear freeze,” Nicholson told me. “This had a significant positive effect on Democratic candidates.” In states without them, Democrats saw no effect.

The likeliest way this could affect Tuesday’s presidential election is in Colorado, which has a marijuana initiative on the ballot. Colorado is also one of the closest swing states. The RealClearPolitics average of polls shows it +1.5 percentage points to Obama. Early vote analysis from the Democratic microtargeting firm Catalyst shows Obama up 44 percent to 43 percent (12 percent independents). If enough young voters turn out to vote pro-pot and also vote for Obama, it could tip the state to Democrats. And if the election comes down to Colorado, it could tip the race.

Bear in mind, this is pretty unlikely. “All the research on ballot initiatives shows that effects are minimal during presidential years,” Nicholson says. “It’s much likelier that they mobilize people in midterms. But if we’re talking about really close margins, and campaigns for legalization do a good job contacting people and persuading them to vote, then I think there’s a chance that it could have an effect.”

Nicholson added that unlike elderly voters for whom there is a “ceiling effect”—they turn out in such high numbers already that it’s hard to boost their totals—young voters, even in 2008, have plenty of room to boost their numbers.

What would it take for potheads to decide the election? I created an electoral map in which Colorado decides the winner. Obama would have to carry Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New Hampshire. Romney would need to take Iowa, Wisconsin, Virginia, Florida, and North Carolina. That would put the race at 265-264 Obama. It would all come down to Colorado’s nine electoral votes—and then, if the race were close enough, and enough pro-marijuana voters rallied themselves off the couch and into their local polling places, they could tip the election to Obama.

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