Could marijuana legalization have an impact on the outcome of the presidential election? Yes, and in more ways than one.
The most obvious way pot could influence the presidential election would be in the way that’s been discussed for months: By driving up voter turnout among groups that historically turn out fewer voters than the national average.
These groups include blacks, Hispanics and the young (voters aged 18-29).
As things now stand, recreational marijuana initiatives will be on the ballots of at least five states: Maine, Massachusetts, Arizona, Nevada and California. Florida and Arkansas will vote on medical marijuana, as may North Dakota and Missouri as well.
If the presidential election is close in any of these states — and in the Electoral College — a higher than normal turnout of black, Hispanic or young voters could be what decides the outcome.
But how and for whom?
The conventional wisdom is that higher turnouts of black, Hispanic and young voters will translate into more votes for Hillary Clinton and the Democrats, because:
1) The three voting cohorts traditionally vote heavily Democratic,
2) Trump’s poll numbers with blacks and Hispanics are in single digits, and they aren’t stellar with the young,
3) Republicans are one of the last two demographic cohorts to oppose legalization of marijuana (the other is voters over 65), which will make it that much harder for the GOP to attract votes from people who came out to vote specifically for legalizing pot, and
4) the Democrats have a pro-pot-legalization plank of sorts in their platform. The Republicans don’t.
That’s the conventional wisdom.
But 2016 has been a lousy year for the conventional wisdom.
Here are some reasons why marijuana initiatives may not automatically deliver extra votes for the Democrats.
First, Trump hasn’t engaged on the marijuana issue yet. Up to now his statements have been contradictory and barely coherent.
But after the convention that could change. Trump is mercurial.
He has shown he won’t hesitate to abruptly change his direction, positions and alliances if he feels it will advance his cause. Don’t take my word on this — ask Ted Cruz. If he feels coming out for marijuana legalization will help close the polling gap with Hillary, he’ll do it in a heartbeat.
And if he’s able to draw a plausible link between the drug war and the poisonous relations between black America and the police, he may pull some black votes that would otherwise go to Hillary.
And coming out for marijuana legalization may be a way for Trump to reach out to Sanders supporters who are gagging at the prospect of voting for Hillary.
However, the way marijuana could really up-end the presidential election is by what it could do for the electoral prospects of Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate.
Johnson, a former Republican governor of New Mexico who was running a marijuana business until recently, has been rising in the polls lately. Last week, he drew 13 percent support in a CNN poll, which is probably the most support a Libertarian presidential candidate has ever registered. Johnson is obviously benefiting from voter disgust with both Trump and Clinton, but I suspect he is also benefiting from the Libertarian Party’s stand on legalization and his own.
Johnson’s 13 percent support in the CNN poll is important, because it means he is within 2 percentage points of 15 percent support.
If he can get 15 percent support in future polls, he will be invited to participate in the presidential debates. That would give him the sort of national forum that could allow him to attract enough votes to genuinely influence the outcome of the election in several states and the Electoral College.
Johnson’s chances of winning would still be slim to say the least. But then he’s running against two candidates with Nixonian levels of personal popularity. And 2016 is a year when Americans are turning the political world upside down.