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The party politics of pot

Source: NPR
Source: NPR

The Republican National Committee is currently weighing the idea of holding its 2016 presidential nominating convention in Denver, as the Democrats did in 2008. Also in the running are Dallas, Cleveland, and Kansas City. What does Denver have going for it? Pleasant summer weather, a compact and easily navigable downtown, a central position in a swing state, ample hotel space, a good reputation based on its 2008 experiences, and plenty of Latino voters to whom the party can reach out. What might sink its chances? Marijuana.

As this Denver Post article suggests, the state’s recent legalization of marijuana remains a complication, even if RNC staffers won’t concede it publicly. It would be an easy target during convention coverage; late-night comedians can start writing the jokes now. And how risky is it to have thousands of Republican delegates staying within a few blocks of dispensaries, with thousands of reporters walking the streets? Will the national party need to instruct delegates to avoid doing something that’s perfectly legal while they’re in town? Would they strip a delegate of his or her credentials for violating those instructions? It might be far easier to avoid the question altogether.

The real complicating factor is that that marijuana affects the parties differently. To get one sense of it, note this scatterplot of county-level votes in Colorado on the 2012 presidential election and Amendment 64, which legalized marijuana in the state:

Source: Colorado Secretary of State
Source: Colorado Secretary of State

That’s a pretty strong correlation. The more Democratic the county, the more likely it was to support marijuana legalization.

But what about at the individual level? Peter Hanson and I directed a University of Denver survey back in the fall of 2012 that addressed this issue, among others. We asked respondents whether they thought marijuana should be illegal for all purposes, legal for medicinal use only, or available recreationally. Here’s how the answers broke down by party:

Source: University of Denver, Colorado Voter Poll, 2012
Source: University of Denver, Colorado Voter Poll, 2012

These are pretty sharp differences. Notably, nearly all Democrats favor some sort of marijuana legality, with 60 percent supporting full recreational availability. Republicans are much more divided on the matter, with about a third taking each position. As Hanson notes, the divisions fall along predictable lines, with frequent church attenders opposing legalization and self-described libertarians supporting it.

This may not end up being too problematic for the GOP. After all, the data displayed above were collected almost two years ago, and evidence suggests that legalization has grown more popular since then. Also, social conservatives will likely substantially outnumber libertarians at the Republican convention and in the primaries and caucuses and would be able to prevail in a straight fight over this.

On the other hand, why introduce an issue that’s divisive and potentially embarrassing for your party if you don’t need to? It may be far easier just to hold the convention in another state and avoid the issue altogether, at least for now.

Seth Masket is an associate professor and chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Denver. He specializes in political parties, state legislatures, campaigns and elections, and social networks.



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