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Marijuana’s Chances On Election Day

Two states — Oregon and Alaska — and Washington, D.C., are voting Tuesday on ballot measures to legalize marijuana. Florida is voting to legalize the use of marijuana for medical purposes. On the heels of successful legalization efforts in Colorado and Washington state in 2012, activists are hoping to pick up at least one win in a tougher year — there are midterm elections rather than a presidential election.

The voting blocs most sympathetic to marijuana legalization — younger voters and people of color — turn out less for these off-year elections than for presidential fights. Still, Florida and Alaska have high-profile statewide offices up for grabs in tight races — governor and senator, respectively — so it’s possible there may be some turnout advantage.

But realistically, the Florida ballot measure doesn’t have much hope because it’s a constitutional amendment that requires 60 percent of the vote. “Otherwise,” said Brian Vicente, a lawyer who worked on the legalization effort in Colorado in 2012, “it would be a slam dunk.”

Vicente said he’d be thrilled with two victories in 2014 but sees the climb as uphill. In Colorado, the 2012 effort was helped by the Obama turnout machine.

As for Oregon and Alaska — which have medical cannabis and are voting on recreational legality — there’s a solid possibility of wins.

Polls in Oregon, perhaps the best pickup opportunity, have been tight. A SurveyUSA poll conducted for Portland’s KATU television station in late September found 44 percent of likely voters breaking for legalization and 40 percent against. And an Elway Research poll released Tuesday found 44 percent for and 46 percent opposed.

In Alaska — which, in fairness, is a pain to poll — the pro-legalization campaign is down 10 percentage points, according to a Dittman Research poll from Oct. 8.

Leading the effort to defeat the legalization ballot measure in Alaska is former state Democratic chairwoman Deborah Williams of the group Big Marijuana Big Mistake. “The main thing we had to do was counter the inevitability argument,” she said.

Williams’s group opposes Colorado-style commercial availability in Alaska, which has made medical marijuana available. Although the organization hasn’t run any commercials — Alaska airtime is particularly expensive because of the close Senate race, she said — it has tried to reach voters through media and in-person interaction.

Taylor Bickford, the director of Alaska operations at the political communications firm Strategies 360, is working on the pro-legalization campaign. Bickford said the campaign is working on targeting young voters: “Young people are overwhelmingly likely to vote yes, and so we are focusing on GOTV [get out the vote] with that group.”

Bickford said the persuadable voters are the middle aged. Indeed, Vicente added, that group comprises the main swing voters in marijuana legalization efforts, but he specifically mentioned women ages 30 to 50. The members of this group are “soft supporters” of legalization, he said, in that they’ll generally support the measure unless hit with substantial negative messaging. And the campaigns of 2012 and their results seem to back this up. Win moms, the logic goes, and you’ll legalize weed.

Just look at this ad from the 2012 Washington state campaign, which approximates the platonic ideal of this argument:

The exit polls bear out the idea that white women are bellwethers on marijuana. Here’s the data from the 2012 Fox News exit polls in Oregon, Washington and Colorado showing support for legalization overall and among white women specifically.


The only state where legalization didn’t win a majority with white women in 2012 was also the state where marijuana legalization failed.

Walt Hickey was FiveThirtyEight’s chief culture writer.

Reuben Fischer-Baum was a visual journalist for FiveThirtyEight.