The Libertarian/Marijuana Conspiracy That Could Swing the Election
Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, pictured in September, launched a third party bid for president.
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The term “perfect storm” is so overused as to be a pathetic cliche — but alas, in politics, it is about the best phrase to describe Colorado in the upcoming election. The state could decide the outcome. And if it comes down to that, it will likely be messy, for we are watching an epic convergence of factors that seem poised to make the square state 2012′s version of Florida in 2000.
Here in the center of the Intermountain West, we have polls showing a nail-bitingly close race between the Democratic and Republican nominees for president. We have a chief election official, Secretary of State Scott Gessler, who has tried both to engage in mass voter purges and to block the mailing of ballots to eligible voters, all while openly saying a “good election” is one in which “Republicans win.” On the ballot, we also have a headline-grabbing ballot initiative about marijuana legalization and a popular former two-term governor of a neighboring state, Gary Johnson, running a Libertarian Party presidential candidacy.
The armchair pundits in Washington and New York typically write off these latter two factors as forces destined to aid the president’s reelection campaign. The conventional wisdom is rooted in oversimplified cartoons and caricatures of voter preferences. Essentially, the idea is that the marijuana measure will bring out liberal, Obama-loving hippies, yuppies and crunchies from Denver, Boulder and Fort Collins, while the libertarian candidate’s campaign will siphon conservative votes that would otherwise go to Mitt Romney, thus making Johnson the Republican “version of Ralph Nader,” as the New York Times predictably projects. But that kind of hackneyed red-versus-blue story line — so prevalent in the national media echo chamber — ignores how these forces are playing out on the ground.
The marijuana ballot measure, for instance, is defying conventional Democrat/Republican and liberal/conservative narratives, effectively scrambling the political establishments of both parties. In the last month, Colorado’s Democratic Party elite, led by Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock (D), have repositioned themselves as committed drug warriors proudly leading the charge against the ballot measure to end the costly war on weed (this is particularly stunning for Hickenlooper, considering his famous career as a drug pusher). Meanwhile, former Colorado Republican congressman Tom Tancredo and a group of fellow GOPers made headlines recently when they wholeheartedly endorsed the measure. Put this together with the libertarian streak in Colorado’s Republican politics, and it becomes clear that the pot initiative could boost voting in ways that don’t correspond to traditional red-versus-blue turnout models and stereotypes.
This is particularly true considering the intersection of the pot initiative and the Johnson campaign. Despite the punditocracy’s narratives to the contrary, the former New Mexico governor has already been taking as much — ormore – support away from Obama in Colorado as he has been from Romney, according to polls. And Johnson’s anti-Obama effect could be come much more pronounced in the next few weeks, thanks to how his supporters are deftly leveraging all hoopla around the marijuana initiative to sharpen their candidate’s appeal and message to disaffected Democrats.
This message is not just word-of-mouth anymore; it has been elevated to the big leagues by a new voter outreach campaign. Indeed, a new automated telephone call focused on the pot measure and playing to liberal disappointment is right now hitting Democratic households in Colorado. Here’s what the message says (you can listen to the full audio below):
Hello fellow Democrat. Like you I was thrilled to vote for Barack Obama in 2008. In 2008, candidate Obama promised not to use the Justice Department to prosecute medical marijuana in states where it was legal. But the real Obama did just that, more than doubling prosecutions, putting people in prisons and shutting down medical marijuana facilities in Colorado. That’s not the change you wanted on health freedom. But you can still be a force for hope and change by voting for Gary Johnson.
Officially funded by the Libertas Institute, the message is accurate in its factual broad strokes. Candidate Obama did explicitly promise to restrain the Justice Department from prosecuting medical marijuana offenses in medical marijuana states, and President Obama has nonetheless overseen an intense Justice Department crackdown on medical marijuana in those states, directly contradicting his pledge.
Though the national media has made the unilateral decision to ignore the massive and destructive Drug War, Johnson and his supporters clearly see the issue as a perfect opening for maximum local — and by virtue of the Electoral College, national — impact. They can make a full-throated libertarian case against the Drug War in a state whose politics are uniquely aligned to convert that argument into an election-winning game-changer for the Republican presidential nominee.
Is this a brilliant GOP conspiracy theory? In other words, is the libertarian candidate deliberately trying to help Romney, as Obama partisans will no doubt grouse? Almost certainly not, as Johnson is no fan of Romney, to say the least. He has run a consistently honest and principled campaign that has been equal — and equally harsh — in its criticism of both parties. For that, despite being on most state ballots, he has been mercilessly shut out of the national debate by America’s bipartisan Political-Media-Industrial Complex. But apparently not shut out enough to potentially shift the outcome of the entire 2012 election.
No, if Obamaphiles have any grievance over the Johnson Effect in Colorado, it should be with their candidate. He was the one who needlessly betrayed his own position on the failed drug war, a position that almost certainly got him votes in 2008 from disaffected Republicans and libertarians. He probably made the same calculation as the national media: He probably believed few care about the Drug War or his drug policy reversals, and that the brazen reversals might even win him votes by making him look “tough.”
But, then, every now and again, such cynical calculations can end up being epic miscalculations, especially when it comes to lying to a motivated subset of voters. In that sense, nobody should be surprised that having been betrayed, many of those Democratic-leaning voters who supported Obama in 2008 specifically because of his position on the Drug War may look for an alternative in 2012. The only thing surprising is that thanks to Colorado’s perfect storm, there’s now a very real chance that the alternative could end up changing the entire course of history.
Listen to the call:
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