Is Legalizing Weed Obama's Secret Weapon?

In 2004 George W. Bush's re-election campaign worked to put anti-gay marriage ballot initiatives up for vote in several swing states in order to turn out more hard-core conservatives to the polls. This year the question is whether marijuana legalization measures will turn out young voters for Obama. 

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In 2004 George W. Bush's re-election campaign worked to put anti-gay marriage ballot initiatives up for vote in several swing states in order to turn out more hard-core conservatives to the polls. This year the question is whether marijuana legalization measures will turn out young voters for Obama.

Bush's plan to use gay marriage bans -- in states that did not actually allow gay marriage -- as a turnout booster led to signs featuring icky public restroom symbols proliferated and liberal panic that the Christian right had taken over. The press obsessed over "values voters." One of Bush's aides, Ken Mehlman, who later came out as gay himself, has apologized for the strategy, two others say it didn't work.

This year there's another incumbent president with modest approval ratings who could turn out his base with controversial ballot measures. But this time, the issue features no biblical or scatological imagery. In 2012, voters in swing states will decide whether they'll allow their fellow citizens to bear joints. Unlike the gay marriage votes, there's no indication that Obama's re-election team is behind any of the pot legalization initiatives, but there are Democrats who are hoping that it will boost turnout among weed's biggest fans: young people.

Getting more young people to vote has long been a Democratic fantasy, since they tend to vote so heavily Democratic. But past attempts to bong the vote have been disappointing, in part because stoners aren't the group anyone would most count on to bother filling out a ballot. Ahead of the 2010 midterms, The Wall Street Journal ran the story"Democrats Look to Cultivate Pot Vote in 2012," noting that California's pot-legalizing Proposition 19 was being studied to see if similar measures "could energize young, liberal voters in swing states for the 2012 presidential election." But exit polls that year showed no spike in young voter turnout, and marijuana legalization was the top issue for just 1 in 10 voters, the Los Angeles Times reported. (Also: Californians ended up voting down Prop. 19.) Still, there were hopeful signs: 64 percent of voters 18-to-24 supported it, and 52 percent of voters 25-to-29 did. In March, the pro-legalization site Just Say Now suggested that the presidential election will draw more young people to the polls, and they'll vote for pot legalization while they're there.

That being said, several have argued that this could be the year for pro-marijuana turnout. After all, 2011 was the first year more young people smoked pot than cigarettes, the CDC says. There is a marijuana initiative on the ballot in Washington, and there might be one in Nebraska and Massachusetts, but those states are pretty solid for one party or the other. Here's our guide to whether pot politics could make an impact in the swing states considering new marijuana rules:

State: Colorado

Initiative: Amendment 64 would make it legal for adults to possess up to an ounce of marijuana or six plants for cultivating. The state has allowed medical marijuana since 2000. Pro-legalization groups have raised $2 million to campaign for the amendment, the Denver Post reports.
Chances of passage: In December, the left-leaning Public Policy Polling found that 49 percent of voters supported the amendment. But this month, the right-leaning Rasmussen found that 61 percent of likely Colorado voters support it.
Chances it'll affect Obama's standing in the state: The president is averaging a very slim lead in the state, less than 2 percentage points over Mitt Romney. The Associated Press points out that though a marijuana measure failed in 2006, that year Coloradans elected a Democratic governor after eight years of Republican rule.

State: Ohio
Initiative: Supporters are collecting the 400,000 signatures required to get two amendments on the ballot: the Medical Cannabis Amendment and the Alternative Treatment Amendment. The first would allow medical marijuana, the second would set up a commission to regulate it. They were approved by the state attorney general several months ago, and the signature deadline is July 4.
Chances of passage: The initiatives aren't on the ballot yet. But in 2009 and 2010, separate polls found that 73 percent of Ohioans supported allowing medical marijuana.
Chances it'll affect Obama's standing in the state: Obama is averaging a small lead over Romney in Ohio. In 2002, Ohioans rejected a proposal to give treatment instead of jail time as punishment for some drug offenses. But maybe it's more important to think about how ballot initiatives influence voters. In 2004, a gay marriage ban passed overwhelmingly in Ohio, but some ague that the initiative didn't bring more Republican voters to the polls. Instead it got a smaller segment of voters "to think about the issues in ways that drove them into the Bush camp," The Hill wrote. The gay marriage ban didn't make evangelicals vote more, it made non-evangelicals vote more Republican. Both Romney and Obama oppose legalization, so it's tough to see how the measure would drive pro-pot independents into the Obama camp.

State: Michigan
Initiative: A municipal measure in Detroit would allow possession of less than an ounce of marijuana on private property for those aged 21 and up. That vote takes place in August. Statewide, supporters have till July to get enough signatures to put a marijuana question on the state ballot in November.
Chances of passage: An EPIC-MRA poll of likely Michigan voters in January found that 45 percent supported legalization of marijuana while 50 percent opposed it. But a Rasmussen poll of likely voters in May found that 56 percent supported legalizing and regulating marijuana similar to alcohol.
Obama's standing: Obama is averaging a 6-point lead in Michigan, but a recent EPIC-MRA poll found Romney 1 point ahead. Michigan voters approved medical marijuana by 63 percent to 37 percent in 2008. But this might be a case where Obama helped marijuana more than marijuana helped Obama. Young voters made a huge shift toward Democrats. Voters 18 to 29 voted for Obama by 68 percent to McCain's 29 percent; in 2004, 55 percent voted for John Kerry and 43 percent voted for Bush. But young people were roughly the same percentage of the electorate both years.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.