I Have Seen the Future of US Politics & Its Name is Prop 19

By Al Giordano

Throughout the 2008 presidential primaries and election I frequently cited polls by SurveyUSA, or SUSA, as the ones that best helped me to be able to pick the winner in 51 out of 55 primary contests and 51 out of 54 Electoral College entities in November. I don’t know if SUSA provided the most accurate polling or not, but I consider their reports to be the most detailed and transparent, with plenty of demographic data to extract with which to be able to see the deeper currents and undertows beneath the up-and-down horse race numbers.

SUSA’s poll results this week showing a narrow (48 to 44 percent) lead for California’s Proposition 19 – to legalize and tax marijuana – actually reveals more of a mixed bag for the referendum’s proponents than many presume, and I’ll explain exactly what is going on in a moment, but first I wanted to draw attention to something the pollsters wrote in their own analysis: That some Democratic party candidates in California – we’re lookin’ at you Senator Barbara Boxer – are going to win or lose based on whether Proposition 19 pulls enough infrequent voters to the polls. And this is paradoxical because Boxer is among the many Democrats who have voiced opposition to Prop 19, and the lessons that come out of November 2 will ring her bell and go all the way up to the White House and into the 2012 election cycle.

SUSA titles its analysis,  “Some Evidence That California's Marijuana Tail is Wagging Barbara Boxer's Dog; Voters Without Home Phones, Voters Focused on Decriminalization, May Tip Senate.” In sum, the pollsters have identified the key factor in Boxer’s contest vs. Republican Carly Fiorina, who leads narrowly with 46 percent over 44 percent for the incumbent. By looking separately at voters who only use cell phones, those who have both cell and home phones, and those only with home telephones, SUSA has found significant differences in the voting intentions of the cell phone-only citizens and the rest. It is no secret to young people (of all ages) who use cell phones exclusively that they are culturally distinct from land liners in ways that extend beyond hardware preferences.

Nomadic, and on the move, more reliant on the Internet than the television for their news intake, they’re the future of the United States. And they’re also a lot more multi-racial – and more actively defy societal apartheids - than the rest of the population. OMG! Wait… wait… see that little light bulb popping on over our heads? By Jove, I think we get it! Those are the 2008 first time Obama voters, duh! And getting them to vote in the midterm elections is the biggest headache that the White House and the Democratic party has right now leading up to November 2.

But it is less of a headache in California this year, precisely because Proposition 19 is on the ballot. And not only because many youngsters want cheaper, cleaner and safer access to marijuana: Younger African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans and others who don’t smoke pot at all but have grown up with the experience of being hassled by police and searched “for drugs” know first hand that the drug war is a cruel scam that is, at least in part, intended to keep them down and put them in prison and on parole. It puts them at a disadvantage in the competition for jobs and careers and opens them to more discrimination in every realm of life. They know that white folks use most of the drugs, but they and their family members are the ones being sent to jail for it. Before we look at age and race as factors in the upcoming vote, let’s first look at the voter tendencies among cell phone users vs. land liners:

As you can see, 62 percent of those who exclusively use cell phones (labeled "CPO, liv") will vote to legalize and tax marijuana while only 29 percent oppose it. They’re just seven percent of the potential electorate, but whether they vote or not makes them the proverbial “swing voters” of 2010, and not just in California.

Now lets look at preferences by age (and, yes, I’m getting to the lesson for everyone in US politics, but especially for Democrats, before these words are done) and by race:

As you can see, among California “hippies” (ha ha, have a sense of humor, Gramps), the 50-64 age group, marijuana legalization enjoys a 48 percent to 40 percent lead, but it’s among voters under the age of 34 where Proposition 19 gets the margin of victory it needs to push it over the top: 59 percent of those voters favor the ballot question to just 33 percent against. Elderly folks are the biggest obstacle for the referendum, with 57 percent against to just 37 percent in favor.

Meanwhile, all racial groups – white, black, Hispanic – except,  according to this poll, for Asian-Americans (and at 12 percent of the survey – about 73 respondents – that stat is likely from a survey sample not large enough to get an accurate reading) favor Prop 19, with the highest margin of victory among Hispanic Californians. Since demographically they are younger than the rest of the population, I would venture that age has at least as much to do with that result as race does. Those numbers also confirm something I’ve talked to the organizers of Prop 19 about since the effort began: That they must avoid making the same mistake as opponents of Proposition 8 (the illegal ban on gay marriage)  in 2008 did: that Prop 19 needed a much more aggressive community organizing and field campaign among blacks and Hispanics. These numbers, and the moves I’ve watched them make over the past year, indicate that they are aggressively campaigning across all racial lines. And if Proposition 19 wins, that will be the number one reason why it triumphed.

Now, onto some more interesting numbers from the same SUSA survey, which bring us back to the larger question-of-the-month in all United States politics and elections:

Most Democrats and Independents favor marijuana legalization. Most Republicans oppose it. Most moderates and liberals favor Prop 19. Most conservatives oppose it. Most people who dislike the “Tea Party” will vote yes, while most who like it (and a smaller group, noted) will vote no. It doesn’t take a degree in rocket science or in polling to see the overlap between Proposition 19’s constituency and that of the Democratic Party and its future.

It is on this point that SurveyUSA mines the data and states what ought to be obvious. “Much learning out of California,” they note, with considerable understatement:

United States Senator Barbara Boxer,Democrat, nominally trails Republican Carly Fiorina among California likely voters interviewed on their home telephones, but, among voters who do not have a home telephone, and who were interviewed by SurveyUSA on their cellphone, Boxer leads 2:1. When the two groups are proportionally blended, SurveyUSA pegs it as Boxer 46%, Fiorina 44%, very much within the survey's theoretical margin of sampling error, and still too close to call, but indicative of how important voters without home phones are if Boxer is to hold her Senate seat, and, as fate may have it, if Democrats are to keep majority control of the United States Senate.”

Then, the pollsters ask aloud: “What's the Tail and What's the Dog Here?” Well, well... guess which dog is soon going to finally have its day:

“SurveyUSA includes a question designed to see if those who rarely vote in congressional elections, but who tell SurveyUSA they are uniquely motivatedto vote in 2010, are voting Republican. One theory underlying much of the 2010 campaign narrative is that Republicans are uniquely motivated, Democrats uniquely dispirited. In other geographies, this question produces expected learning: uniquely motivated 2010 voters are in fact more Republican than habitual midterm voters.

“In California, the opposite. Uniquely motivated 2010 voters are more Democratic, turning a 4-point Democratic advantage among habitual voters in the race for Governor into the 7-point Democratic advantage that SurveyUSA reports here; turning a 2-point Democratic advantage among habitual voters in the Lieutenant Governor's contest into the 6-point Democratic advantage SurveyUSA reports here, and turning a 2-point advantage for "Yes" on marijuana into the 4-point "Yes" advantage that SurveyUSA reports here. But in the Senate contest: the incumbent Democrat trailsby 4 points among habitual voters, and nominally leads by the 2 points that SurveyUSA reports here only when these uniquely motivated voters are included….”

And here comes the money quote:

“Subject to the limitations of a small sample size, the data may suggest that what is uniquely motivating Californians is marijuana. Uniquely motivated voters vote 7:4 to decriminalize marijuana. The even smaller subset of uniquely motivated voters interviewed on a cellphone is voting 12:1 ‘Yes’ on marijuana. Are the ‘Yes’ on marijuana voters the tail wagging Barbara Boxer's dog?This is more plausible to SurveyUSA than the reverse, which would be that 3-term incumbent Boxer has a unique tractor-beam in 2010 that is drawing to the polls otherwise disaffected voters who just happen to be pushing Proposition 19 over the top.”

(Emphasis in bold text added by The Field.)

Interestingly enough, Boxer opposes Proposition 19. So does former and future Governor Jerry Brown (considering that his nickname back in the seventies and eighties was “Governor Moonbeam” for his Zen proclivities, it’s disappointing to watch his anti-Prop 19 charade with a straight face). And when I see Attorney General Eric Holder and drug czar Gil Kerlikowske embarrass themselves with anti-Prop 19 posturing – given that the data shows that highly motivated Prop 19 supporters are the Democrats’ only ace left to save the California senate seat, and what that implies for the rest of the country in 2012 – I have to wonder aloud whether this is the usual fear-motivated political posturing on the part of these Democrats or a more calculated strategy to hope Prop 19 loses narrowly in order to have it on the ballot again two years from now and bring the new “swing voter” back to the ballot box again. If that is the hidden agenda, it is a risky one, not one that I would recommend, because if Prop 19 goes down this year there are going to be a lot of pissed off reform votes out there, some of whom remember when the words "tea party" had other connotations.

Already there is talk in high Democratic Party circles of seeding many state ballots with marijuana legalization referenda in 2012 to boost turnout of these cell phone voters. It's about time the Democrats had a great "wedge issue" in the culture wars, and Prop 19 is introducing it to the nation. What these numbers out of California are demonstrating is that had that been done this year in more key states, Democrats would not be in such high danger of losing the US House of Representatives. Outside of California, these cell phone-toting mobile voters are not likely to vote in such high numbers, and that will make the difference between defeat and victory in many Congressional districts and some Senate seats, too. Campaign managers, Democratic National Committeepersons, political consultants and Organizing for America operatives are pulling their hair out in 49 states of the union trying to drag unmotivated voters to the polls. Prop 19 – whether it wins or loses – is now Senator Boxer’s only hope of reelection. Because she sure ain’t motivating this emerging force in US politics we’ll call cell phone voters, even if most of those that do vote will hold their noses and pull a lever for her.

Here is, also, a word of caution to Proposition 19 proponents and drug policy reformers nationwide who are reading the polls too optimistically and counting their votes before they are cast: The SUSA poll, while it shows the “yes” vote in a narrow lead, also reveals some weaknesses for the referendum’s chances. Among those Californians who had already voted – a whopping 19 percent of the projected electorate – Proposition 19 is losing with 47 percent to 50 percent against it. Thus, it is an open question just how "motivated" Prop 19 supporters will be over the next ten days.

The highest undecided groups are African-Americans (16 percent undecided), people 50-64 (probably some tea partiers in that group, too) and women (12 percent). There is probably considerable overlap in those three groups, too: a large number of African-American women over fifty years old, and women in general over 50, are the most uncertain constituencies here, and Prop 19 proponents need an aggressive final push over the next ten days to convince them. They also need an Obama ’08 style Get Out the Vote (GOTV) ground game to actually get the cell phone voters to vote on and before November 2. In the early balloting, they haven’t done that job well enough yet. The good news is, that Organizing for America - the 2010 version of the 2008 Obama field organization - does have a GOTV army and will also be pulling the California cell phone voters by the ear, tantalizing them with Prop 19 on the ballot, no matter what the Attorney General or "drug czar" say from Washington. Cabinet members do not now, and never will, rule the ground. ¡Olé!

The best case scenario for Democrats, however, is not that Prop 19 loses and comes up again in California in 2012, but to the contrary: If the historic Proposition 19 passes, the pundits and talking heads that generate the misnamed “conventional wisdom” in the Washington DC beltway will be falling all over each other to note that Prop 19 won and it pulled Boxer out of the fire with it. If coming out of Election Night, Prop 19 emerges with the sheen of a  newly-minted winner, Democratic strategists will have little choice but to adopt a “50 state strategy” (especially in the 26 states - Maine, Massachusetts, and virtually everything west of the Mississippi River - that have citizen generated statewide ballot initiative processes), and go “all in” on legalizing, regulating and taxing marijuana, even if their politicians continue to balk at saying it aloud. And if you’re a Democratic (or Republican) politician that doesn’t yet see the writing on the wall, remember how most of you were wrong (or late) in your predictions two and three years ago, and that "Yes, We Can" means "Yes, We Cannabis," too.

Update: Prop 19 proponents continue to make the right moves (as recommended above). I just received an advisory that the NAACP and the Drug Policy Alliance are holding a press conference tomorrow in Oakland, featuring Alice Huffman, President, California NAACP State Conference, Stephen Gutwillig, State Director, Drug Policy Alliance, Major Neill Franklin, Executive Director, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, Danny Glover, Actor, Richard Lee, President, Oaksterdam University, Robert Rooks, Director, Criminal Justice, National NAACP and Dr. Jocelyn Elders, Former Surgeon General, to release a new report, “Arresting Blacks for Marijuana in California: Possession Arrests in 25 Cities, 2006-08.”

Not only is that a good campaign move, but it tells an important truth, too.

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About Al Giordano


Publisher, Narco News.

Reporting on the United States at The Field.

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