The past two weeks of polling have provided Democrats with many excuses to seek out chemical cures for un-mellow moods. But of all the buzz-harshing polls to surface between Hillary’s fainting spell and Trump’s figurative face-plant at Monday’s debate, few were as unnerving as CNN/ORC’s survey of Colorado.
Throughout July and early August, polls showed Clinton with a commanding lead in the Rocky Mountain State. Over the summer, Monmouth University, Fox News, NBC/WSJ/Marist, and Quinnipiac all showed Coloradans opting for Clinton over Trump by double-digit margins. The state had emerged as a critical brick in Clinton’s electoral college firewall: Even as the Democratic nominee lost ground in Ohio, Florida, and North Carolina, she still had a narrow path to victory that wound through the Rocky Mountains.
And then, in late September, three straight polls found Trump either winning Colorado, or just one point behind. The first was Gravis, a notoriously Republican-leaning firm whose finding could be easily dismissed. But then CBS News/YouGov showed Clinton leading by only one, and CNN/ORC confirmed the trend with a survey that put Trump on top by a skinny digit.
The cross-tabs of that last poll threw Clinton’s problem into sharp relief: When registered voters were forced to choose between the two major party candidates, the Democrat won 50 to 45 percent. But in a four-way race among likely voters — which is to say, those most motivated to turn out — Clinton lost five points on her chief opponent. One reason: 30 percent of likely voters under 45 turned to third-party candidates, with a full 24 percent backing Libertarian standard-bearer Gary Johnson.
Variations of that result have surfaced in a series of national and state polls. One nationwide Quinnipiac survey from mid-September found 44 percent of voters under 35 going third party, with Johnson winning nearly a third of the demographic. In 2012, Barack Obama won 60 percent of voters under 30; Quinnipiac found Clinton winning half that figure.
A good chunk of Johnson’s support likely comes from young Republicans, whose relatively liberal social views make them a natural constituency for libertarian candidates. But he also seems to be winning a significant number of left-leaning millennials, who favor Clinton over Trump, when forced to chose.
What could young, left-wing voters — particularly, those in a swing state where marijuana is unusually popular — possibly see in Gary Johnson? Could it be his steadfast opposition to free public college? Or his call for repealing the health-care law that lets Americans under 26 stay on their parents’ insurance? His brave defense of Citizens United and the need for unlimited corporate money in our politics? Or could it be, ya know, the legal-weed thing?
Now, there are other plausible sources of Johnson’s appeal to the young left, including his distaste for foreign wars and support of criminal-justice reform. But opposition to the drug war is very likely the most salient part of his pitch: Polls consistently show well over two-thirds of voters under 35 favoring marijuana legalization.
If Hillary Clinton can consolidate the support of young left-wing voters — and motivate them to turn out on Election Day — she will win the White House. And there’s no better cure for millennial apathy than legal marijuana.
The Clinton campaign understands the potency of the weed issue. In early August, the Democratic nominee announced that her administration would remove marijuana from Schedule I — the DEA’s designation for the most harmful, least medically beneficial, illegal narcotics. That would certainly be a step in the right direction. But saying “I believe the government should stop pretending that medicinal marijuana does not exist and that bong rips are more dangerous than Oxycontin” is bound to be less inspiring than “we need to stop putting people in cages for indulging in a substance less harmful than alcohol.”
In declaring her support for the federal legalization of marijuana, Clinton would accomplish more than simply bringing her campaign into alignment with millennial opinion. She would also undermine the perception that she’s an overly cautious politician who’s unwilling to take risky stands on behalf of liberal priorities. Even Bernie Sanders, that tribune of millennial radicalism, never advocated, unequivocally, for the nationwide legalization of cannabis. Rather, he called for the federal government to allow the states to set their own laws on the substance’s legality — which is to say, to bring the written law into alignment with our current reality.
What’s more, calling for nationwide legalization would add heft to Clinton’s platform on criminal justice. She could highlight the stark racial disparities in marijuana arrests, tell the stories of particular individuals who, unlike our sitting president, weren’t fortunate enough to have their youthful indiscretions go unpunished. She could frame her case in conservative terms, evincing no enthusiasm for recreational drug use, but much skepticism about the efficacy of combating teenage marijuana use via the carceral state.
Beyond improving Clinton’s favorability among 420-friendly millennials, this stance would also mobilize a multitude of pro-legalization advocacy groups behind her candidacy. Clinton’s campaign needs an infusion of energy and enthusiasm. And there are few issues that boast a more passionate — but underserved — activist base than marijuana legalization.
Of course, none of these benefits would matter much if moving toward millennials on drug policy threatened Clinton’s support from other key demographics. But there’s little evidence to back up that conclusion. Recent polls from Quinnipiac, Gallup, and the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research put national support for weed legalization at 54, 58, and 61 percent, respectively. Support has always been higher among Democrats, and hit a high of 70 percent in the latter poll.
For comparison’s sake: Hillary Clinton has already called for restoring federal funding for abortion services — a position that only 29 percent of Americans share.
Plus, the most politically salient argument against legalization — that it would send a harmfully permissive message to American youth — is not one that Donald Trump is well-suited to make. After all, “what message does this send to our children?” is a question many voters have been asking about the mogul’s candidacy.
Finally, the substantive case for legalizing marijuana is overwhelming. It simply does not make public-policy sense to create an unregulated black market for a popular substance that is less addictive, less fatal, and less likely to cause traffic accidents than alcohol. Bringing weed into the legitimate economy would take a major profit source away from violent drug cartels. It would allow American cops to spend less time disrupting the lives of soft drug users and more time policing violent crime — in 2014, there were 700,993 marijuana arrests, roughly 90 percent of which were attributed solely to possession. And, legal weed might very well ameliorate our nation’s genuine drug-induced public health crisis: Multiple studies have found that when states provide access to medicinal marijuana, reductions in the prevalence of painkiller abuse and related overdoses follow.
To be sure, legalization is likely bring some share of downsides for public health. The most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that, as marijuana has become increasingly legal over the past decade, the number of daily pot smokers in the United States has nearly doubled. And such heavy use of the drug has been linked to adverse long-term cognitive effects in some studies.
But such effects are most likely to occur in the developing brains of adolescents. And Colorado’s experiment with legalization has produced no increase in underage use of the drug. What’s more, that National Survey on Drug Use and Health also found that the number of Americans between the ages of 12 and 17 who regularly smoke weed has actually gone down as more and more states have liberalized their marijuana laws: Today, such adolescents are 10 percent less likely to have smoked marijuana in the past month than they had been in 2002.
Hillary Clinton needs to distance herself from her daughter’s reefer madness. The delusions of drug warriors have been discredited, while those of the most wide-eyed stoners appear to have actually come true — the fate of our republic may well depend on whether the Democratic nominee honors their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of well-priced headies.