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In key swing states, weed is polling better than all potential 2016 candidates

Clinton-Chong 2016? <a href="" target="_blank"> via Flickr user Coleen Whitfield</a> (CC)
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In three key swing states, marijuana legalization is more popular than any potential 2016 presidential contender. That's according to a Quinnipiac University poll conducted in March.

More than 80 percent of adults in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida support medical marijuana, according to the survey. Fifty one percent of Pennsylvanians, 52 percent of Ohioans and 55 percent of Floridians also support legalizing small amounts of marijuana for personal use.

Recreational weed is polling just a hair better than Hillary Clinton in all three states -- she's currently pulling favorability numbers in the high-40s, low-50s range. And marijuana is considerably more popular than any of the major Republican candidates. In Ohio, for instance, recreational marijuana outpolls Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz by more than two-to-one. In Pennsylvania, medical marijuana is more than three times more popular than Jeb Bush. Home-state favorites Bush and Rubio poll better in Florida, but they're still running 8 to 13 points behind recreational marijuana.

Granted, I'm employing some sleight-of-hand here. Marijuana legalization is an issue and candidates are people. You can't really compare them in an apples-to-apples way like this.

Still, though, the numbers illustrate two facts: the continued support for liberalizing marijuana laws, and the ambiguity around presidential candidates that you'd expect more than a year out from the election -- after all, Darth Vader was polling better than the 2016 field as of last year.

Another important point: on marijuana in particular, high polling numbers don't necessarily translate into election victories. In Florida, for instance, 88 percent of voters said they supported medical marijuana last July. But the state's constitutional amendment to allow medical marijuana failed to gather the 60 percent support it needed to become law last November .

Medical marijuana proponents are already working to put the issue back on the Florida ballot in 2016, when the electorate will likely be younger and more liberal -- perhaps just enough to push it over that 60 percent threshold. A group in Ohio wants to put full marijuana legalization before voters this November. And marijuana will likely show up on the ballot in at least six other states in 2016, including California, Nevada and Arizona.

All of which adds up to the fact that marijuana will be a mainstream election issue that 2016 candidates will need to grapple with, according to John Hudak of the Brookings Institution. Some Republicans are eager to frame the topic as a states-rights issue, while others, like Rand Paul, approach it from the standpoint of criminal justice reform and fiscal responsibility. Democrats can capitalize on the issue to reach out to their young voter base and engage them on questions of social and racial justice.

Overall, Hudak concludes that "in some ways marijuana policy is the perfect issue for a presidential campaign. It has far reaching consequences that both parties have reason to engage." While it won't rise to the level of a litmus test issue for most voters, candidates won't be able to avoid talking about it -- or they'll do so at their own peril.