There is a common political wisdom that says having marijuana on the ballot will help a Democratic candidate. Much as Republicans used anti-gay-marriage initiatives in the early '00s to allegedly drive turnout among social conservatives who’d then vote Republican, some pundits believe pro-marijuana initiatives now will drive turnout among young people who overwhelmingly support legalization who’d then vote Democratic. 

Marijuana politics certainly played a large role in electing Oregon’s Attorney General, an underdog Democrat who trounced a well-financed establishment Democrat candidate in the 2012 primary.  

In Alaska, some believe Democrat Mark Begich’s campaign benefits from the recent move of the legalization vote there from the August primary to the November general election ballot. In Florida, many have speculated that Orlando attorney John Morgan’s generous financial support for a medical marijuana amendment there is a cynical move to bolster the chances that his candidate, former Republican governor turned Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Charlie Crist, wins his former office back.

But a new analysis from shows that Democrats hoping for an influx of young, pot-smoking progressive voters may be disappointed.

Initial exit polls in 2012 from Oregon, Washington, and Colorado showed great increases in youth turnout. Oregon’s legalization lost, but boosted youth turnout by five points. In Washington, where I-502 won, youth turnout was up 12 points. And in Colorado, where Amendment 64 won, youth turnout was up six points (though, interestingly, legalization got 50,000 more votes than did President Obama.)

However, a more accurate reading of the 2012 election numbers by the Census Bureau found very little change in youth turnout compared to the last presidential election of 2008. The average drop among those three legalization-voting states was 1.2 points, not far from the 1.5 point drop nationally. Further analysis of states voting on the legalization or decriminalization of marijuana since 1998 showed there was an average 0.2 point decrease in young voters compared to the last similar election (presidential vs. presidential or mid-term vs. mid-term).

As noted, the pro-legalization turnout in Colorado didn’t seem to turn all in Democrat Barack Obama’s favor. Looking at the county level, the success or failure of the 2012 legalization measures didn’t correlate with how well President Obama’s results turned out in that county. But consider that to this point, Democrats have been the party of marijuana by default -- almost all Republicans have been quite open about opposing us, but most Democrats have never been strong about supporting us. Perhaps if Democrats ally themselves publicly with pro-marijuana efforts, as my Congressman Earl Blumenauer has recently done with a series of TV ads openly calling for marijuana law reform, then they can make the rising support of legalization work in their political favor.

"Radical" Russ Belville is the host of The Russ Belville Show, which airs live at 3pm Pacific.