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Strategy and opportunity with marijuana legalization

by Eric Ferguson on November 2, 2013 · 3 comments

A recent Gallup poll found that a majority of Americans favor marijuana legalization for the first time, and supporters skew towards the younger end of the age spectrum. TPM gets a hat tip and credit for calling it correctly. They said last April this would happen, “Surprised At Speed Of Gay Marriage? Pot Legalization Is Next“. In that article, they posted a graph using polling data going back to 1995 which showed that support for marijuana legalization followed the same trajectory as support for marriage equality, being just a bit behind. With the increase in support for marriage equality which a few months earlier allowed supporters to win at the polls in four states, they predicted marijuana legalization would shortly reach the same level of support. Apparently they were right. TPM unfortunately lost the graph when the redesigned their web site, but I found it in an internet archive. Here it is:

(click to enlarge):


changing attitudes: marriage equality and pot legalization


After seeing that chart, I looked into whether the same might be true about immigration reform, which was the third issue where progress seemed to be coming rapidly. The upshot is that the polling data wasn’t nearly so robust as for the other two issues, but what there was suggested the same trend. This suggests a strategy, both in terms of making progress on other issues long term, and a specific application to campaigning next year.


I suppose it’s obvious since I’m repeating it, but yes, this is a bit a of a pet theory.  A way to make progress on an issue goes like this:
—Win young voters by a lot.
—Keep them with you until they reach the age where they vote regularly.
—Repeat for several consecutive elections.
Frost and decorate for the occasion. Oh wait, that’s a cake recipe. A delicious multi-layer young voter and progressive issue cake. OK, I’ll stop that while I’m behind. In terms of the short term, that’s a frustrating strategy because we all want to win now, but if we can’t, if we’re going to have to take our losses and we just won’t have many friends in elective office, this makes more sense than picking fights right now, or just giving up. On other issues, maybe focusing on persuading the youngest voters is the only way to make progress.
Specifically about next year, with the majority of the public having come around to supporting legalizing marijuana in much the same way they did marriage equality and gay rights in general, this suggests a way to get after that old problem of younger voters turning out at lower rates than other age groups. I’m not suggesting younger voters care more about this issue than anything. I’d be quite surprised if marijuana legalization is as important as student loan debt, for example (BTW, anyone mentioned that to John Kline?). Even if an issue is ranked after others in importance though, being on the right side of the issue doesn’t hurt.  Interestingly, lest anyone fears that pursuing the young voters by talking about marijuana legalization risks alienating older voters, Gallup found middle-aged voters support legalization too, just not as much. Only seniors are against. From the Gallup article:

So if you support legalization, and you’re trying to win younger voters, talking up your position can only help. It looks like you would even be on the right side of randomly selected middle-aged voters. Again, I don’t suggest talking about this instead of student loan debt or other issues that may be of top importance to your particular young voters, and my guess this isn’t a big enough issue to motivate people otherwise paying no attention to the next election, but being in agreement with two-thirds of the people you’re trying to turn out is likely something you want to make sure they know.


Let me stress the importance of reaching these younger voters. Democratic-Leaning Demographic Groups (DLDGs) have long tended to drop-off more in non-presidential years than Republicans, and the key to winning in non-presidential years is often our success at bucking that tendency. Here’s an issue where, like with gay rights, the preference of younger voters is pretty lopsided. It’s tempting to just target frequent voters, some campaigns live and die by swing voters, and I, like most of you, have seen the recent polls showing how Democrats have roughly the seven-point margin in generic preference that is about the point where we flip the US House — even seniors don’t like Republicans right now. However, the midterms are still a year away, and potential voters have plenty of time to revert to old habit. Old habit means the young don’t vote and the swing voters elect the non-presidential party. That’s bad for us. If we can crack the problem of getting DLDGs to vote in non-presidential elections, we change the game. I don’t just mean in 2014, because what works can presumably be used again. Besides, the political preferences of younger voters in recent elections is no guarantee those preferences stay the same. Always treat people like their support is in doubt and has to be earned, just in case they’re not with you.

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