Democrats Look to Cultivate Pot Vote in 2012

Democratic strategists are studying a California marijuana-legalization initiative to see if similar ballot measures could energize young, liberal voters in swing states for the 2012 presidential election.

Some pollsters and party officials say Democratic candidates in California are benefiting from a surge in enthusiasm among young voters eager to back Proposition 19, which would legalize marijuana in certain quantities and permit local governments to regulate and tax it.

Party strategists and marijuana-legalization advocates are discussing whether to push for similar ballot questions in 2012 in Colorado and Nevada—both expected to be crucial to President Barack Obama’s re-election—and Washington state, which will have races for governor and seats in both houses of Congress.

Already, a coalition of Democratic-leaning groups has conducted a poll in Colorado and Washington to test the power of marijuana measures to drive voter turnout.

Ballot measures typically don’t increase turnout on a mass scale. Still, strategists in both parties argue certain ballot measures can help activate targeted groups of voters and campaign volunteers in numbers that can be significant in close elections.

Democratic strategists liken the marijuana effort to the 2004 ballot drives to ban gay marriage in Ohio and 10 other states. Whether those measures helped then-President George W. Bush win that year remains a point of debate, as turnout was high even in states without the issue on the ballot. But many conservatives say the measure drove thousands to the polls in Ohio, the election’s central battleground, where Mr. Bush won by just two percentage points, or about 118,000 votes.

Now, some Democratic strategists say marijuana legalization could do the same for their party. Should they move forward in 2012, they likely would have the backing of liberal philanthropist Peter Lewis, chairman of Progressive Insurance Cos.

Mr. Lewis said through a spokesman that changing marijuana laws is “emerging as one of the leading national issues in the coming years.…Change is inevitable and my priority is to make that change positive.”

Anna Greenberg, a Democratic pollster, conducted a survey in late August to test the effect of the California measure on voter turnout. In her poll, a quarter of Democrats said they were “extremely interested” in voting in this year’s elections for governor and senator. When told about the marijuana measure, the number jumped to 38%, she said. She found no effect on Republican turnout.

“Moving forward, these kinds of initiatives could have a coattail effect for Democratic candidates,” she said. She declined to say who hired her to test on the marijuana issue, saying just that it was a pro-Democratic group.

Surveys by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling suggest California voters under 30 years old are more likely to vote this year than their counterparts in other states. People in that age group make up 11% of California voters likely to turn out in November—compared with 8% of the likely electorate or less in Illinois, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Michigan, all of which have competitive statewide elections. In the last midterms, in 2006, voters under 30 were 6.5% of the California electorate, according to data compiled for the non-partisan Field Poll.

Tom Jensen, polling director for PPP, said the results suggest the marijuana initiative is driving voter interest among those under 30. He said the interest may be boosting Democratic candidates, particularly Sen. Barbara Boxer (D., Calif.), who has built a lead over GOP challenger Carly Fiorina recently.

The trend was identified in recent days by Jon Walker, an analyst at the liberal blog Fire Dog Lake, which has been pushing for marijuana legalization. Mr. Walker wrote that “the evidence is strong” that Proposition 19, not California Democratic candidates, was mobilizing young voters.

Blair Butterworth, a Democratic consultant in Washington state who works with legalization advocates, estimated a pot ballot measure could drive up youth turnout by two to four percentage points—enough to influence a tight race. “It’s not like a home run. But with elections being so close these days, it’s a big difference,” he said.

Democratic pollster Andrew Myers found in a December 2009 survey in Colorado that 45% of Obama “surge voters”—people voting for the first time in 2008—said they would be more interested in turning out again if marijuana legalization were on the ballot. “If you are 18 to 29, it’s far and away the most compelling reason to go out and vote,” Mr. Myers said.

Still, these conclusions are under debate, even among Democrats. Roger Salazar, a Democratic consultant advising police chiefs and businesses on an anti-legalization campaign, called the evidence for increased turnout “largely anecdotal.” “There are a lot of pot-smoking voters—but not that many,” he said.

Few political candidates support marijuana legalization. In California, the Democratic and Republican candidates for Senate and governor oppose Proposition 19. Mr. Obama opposes legalization and would face political pressure to challenge the law if Proposition 19 passes.

A recent Field Poll said Proposition 19 was favored by 49% of likely voters and opposed by 42%.

Write to Peter Wallsten at peter.wallsten@wsj.com

PETER WALLSTEN / The Wall Street Journal