Pot Politics: Is marijuana legalization a vote getter?

There has been quite a bit of discussion (here, here, here, and here) in the media about Justin Trudeau’s recent announcement that he would legalize marijuana use in Canada.

A lot of the reaction to his announcement is speculation about whether it will have a positive effect on Liberal support, especially among younger voters.

In an interview with Yahoo! News Canada, I argued that the policy alone wouldn’t be enough to engage large numbers of young Canadians to vote.  There may be a few previous non-voters who will be mobilized to vote Liberal because of the party’s position on marijuana, but the impact overall would be minor.  I told Andy Radia that Millennials generally support the legalization of marijuana but there are more important issues that they want their politicians to talk about.  Specifically, I said, “if a politician can tap into the frustration that exists among many Millennials, they could be successful. Millennials have been told their entire lives that the world is their oyster – that there will be plenty of jobs for them and they will be able to do what they love. Well that promise is not turning into reality.”

In research we conducted last October, we found that the decriminalization of marijuana was ranked as a top concern for only a handful of Millennials we interviewed.

We asked respondents to rank the top three challenges or concerns faced by their generation.  Overall, a majority of Canadian Millennials we surveyed ranked the availability of quality jobs in their top three concerns, followed by student and personal debt, the cost of goods, and the cost of education.  The decriminalization of marijuana comes LAST on the list of issues we tested with only 4% of Canadian Millennials ranking it in their top three.  Clearly not a potential vote winner if other parties can address the more pressing issues of concern to Millennials.

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Now, others have pointed to referenda in Washington and Colorado last year that saw youth voter turnout surge.  But there’s a big difference between a referendum and election.  In a referendum, voters have a clear ballot question and can be mobilized to support either side of the question.  An election is far more complex with the implications of the vote more far ranging.  As I have argued in the past, many young Canadians don’t likely vote because they feel they are not informed enough about the issues and politics.  They feel not voting is the responsible thing to do.  One issue alone won’t pull young voters out to the ballot box if they feel uniformed about the other issues of importance in the campaign.

But Trudeau’s decision to support the legalization of marijuana could increase Liberal support among younger voters if it is part of a broader set of policies targeting the generation.

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Consistency will be important and this policy, if packaged with a set of other policies that appeal to young voters and meets their needs could distinguish the Liberals from the Conservatives and the NDP.  This may be the beginning of a concerted effort by the Liberals to re-brand the party around the youthful image of its leader with the ultimate goal of create new markets for votes as opposed to competing exclusively in the current market of past voters.  It’s a risky strategy since young voters are notoriously unreliable (ask the NDP in BC) and some of the issues that appeal to young voters could turn off older voters.

John Ibbitson writes about this in today’s Globe and Mail (subscription required to read full article).

He writes,

“Politically, however, support for legalization is very, very risky.  Mr. Trudeau’s stance on marijuana will appeal to younger voters, who are more socially liberal on all issues than older voters. But the young are also less likely to vote. In the last federal election, overall turnout was an anemic 61 per cent. But for Canadians aged 18-24 it was 39 per cent; for those aged 25-41 it was 45 per cent.

Mr. Trudeau, as everyone knows, is hoping to do an Obama. The American president galvanized Millennial voters in 2008 and 2012. Their strong turnout was a major factor in his victories. If Mr. Trudeau can also bring a new generation of voters to the polls, with a similar message of hope and change, he could reshape this country’s political landscape in his favour.

Or he could fail. The young could remain apathetic and at home.”

Ibbitson’s analysis is right on the mark.

But he goes on to argue that middle-class voters living in suburban communities around Toronto and Vancouver are more conservative when it comes to crime and justice issues.  That’s true.  But these voters are also parents who worry about their kids like all parents of Millennial children (remember – we are the “coddled generation”).

He misses this point in his defence of the thesis outlined in his and co-author Darrell Bricker’s book the Big Shift.

If  Trudeau’s pot policy is part of a larger package that speaks to the needs of young Canadians while helping to calm the nerves and worries of their parents (who want their kids to succeed and move out of their homes), Trudeau and the Liberals could be onto something.  This aligns perfectly with the worries of middle-class voters and creates a cross-pressure that could effectively compete with the narrative being expressed by Harper and the Conservative Party.

Think about this – most parents of young children don’t want their kids smoking marijuana.  But they also don’t want them to get a criminal record.  It’s just another worry of the sandwich generation that Trudeau could be effectively speaking to.  Now decriminalization of marijuana would solve this concern so full out legalization may be a step to far but it still may deal with those concerns.

In other words, this policy is not just directed at young Canadians but their parents too.  And if his appeal to young voters can energize their parents without offending them, then the impact of a policy “product” that unites 18 to 50 year olds, it doesn’t matter if no one over 50 votes Liberal – the Liberals win.

So by itself, Trudeau’s pot policy won’t likely get youth turnout up.  And yes, it could backfire.

But if it is included in a package of policies that addresses the concerns of Canadian Millennials and their parents then it could be a winning, albeit risky, formula for winning in 2015.

David Coletto is CEO of Abacus Data and leads its Public Affairs research practice. He has a PhD from the University of Calgary and is an adjunct professor at Carleton University.  He’s an avid road cyclist.

Contact David Coletto:

T: 613-232-2806 x. 248

E: david@abacusdata.ca

W: http://www.abacusdata.ca

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