October 22, 2013
A marijuana plant. (Matilde Campodonico/Associated Press)
A marijuana plant. (Matilde Campodonico/Associated Press)

The news today from Gallup is that, for the first time in its polling, a majority — indeed, a solid majority — of Americans back legalizing marijuana.

So far, most politicians have stuck with support for the status quo, or perhaps the status quo plus various exemptions and loopholes. With 58 percent of all respondents and 65 percent of Democrats favoring legalization, however, there’s now a very good chance that a fair number of ambitious Democratic politicians are going to sign up for full legalization as a way to differentiate themselves in Democratic primaries.

Matt Yglesias suggests that Hillary Clinton will be among them. I think that’s perhaps premature, but maybe not. The way this probably will unfold is that a fair number of candidates will take a legalization position, and some may even try to run hard on it, in 2014 elections and especially Democratic primaries. If it’s perceived to be successful, then expect Clinton’s competitors for 2016 to flirt with or perhaps even embrace the position. Only after that — or at least, only after it’s clear that it will happen — would I expect Clinton to go along. As a strong front-runner (and assuming she’s running), expect Clinton to avoid positions that she perceives as dangerous in a general election, but also expect her to match Democrats who embrace issues that could divide the party.

All of that analysis, for Clinton and the rest, is based on an assumption that candidates will react here to electoral incentives rather than their personal views of the issue. I think that’s extremely likely in this case; I’d be very surprised if more than a handful of candidates for Congress next year have strong personal feelings on this. In that, it’s probably very different from marriage; while obviously electoral incentives were important, I suspect a lot of politicians cared quite a bit about it on substantive grounds.

It’s true that there are some libertarian candidates who may try to run on the issue in Republican primaries, but, for the most part, it’s still going to be a loser there. And remember: just because most Democratic voters support legalization in polls doesn’t mean that it’s a voting issue for them. But, yes, I do think there’s a good chance that it’s going to be an issue Democratic politicians jump on in 2014 and 2016.