One of the most historic turnarounds in California initiative history has been largely overlooked in the wake of the stunning presidential election results. Californians passed a recreational marijuana initiative this fall after rejecting a similar effort six years ago. The 2010 initiative, Proposition 19, failed with 46.5 percent of the vote. This year, Proposition 64 passed with 57.1 percent. How did support grow by 10.6 points, allowing this controversial policy to move into the victory column? The answers are found in both national and state trends.
First, Americans’ views on marijuana legalization have shifted in recent years. When asked in Pew Research Center national surveys, "Do you think the use of marijuana should be made legal or not,” fewer than 50 percent said "yes” in 2010 and 2011 while a majority have said "yes” since 2013. Two key events happened in 2012: Washington and Colorado voters passed initiatives to legalize recreational marijuana. Alaska, Oregon, and Washington, DC, voters followed in 2014. This November, Massachusetts and Nevada—and perhaps Maine, depending on a recount underway—joined California voters in legalizing recreational marijuana.
California public opinion mirrors these changing national attitudes. PPIC surveys have been repeating the Pew Research Center’s question for six years. In our surveys, the percent of adults saying "yes” to legalizing marijuana was below 50 percent before November 2010, when Proposition 19 failed. Support for legalization edged up to the majority in 2013. Some Californians apparently changed their minds about marijuana legalization after other states passed initiatives.
Did California’s marijuana legalization pass because its base of support grew stronger? Or because its appeal expanded to more demographic groups? The answer is "both” when we analyze the final PPIC surveys before the November 2010 and November 2016 elections. These surveys were within close range of the election results (44% Proposition 19, 55% Proposition 64) with a comparable 11-point difference between 2010 and 2016. We compare the likely voters who said "yes” to Propositions 19 and 64 across parties, political, and demographic groups.
The only majority supporters of Proposition 19 in 2010 were Democrats, liberals, and Californians under 35 years old. This fall, there were double-digit increases in the yes vote for Proposition 64 among Democrats, liberals, and residents under age 35. The consolidation of support in these groups was important in the 2016 California election context. This presidential election attracted a larger electorate with liberal leanings than the 2010 gubernatorial election did. That is reflected in the passage of several progressive reform and tax initiatives this November, as noted in an earlier PPIC blog post.
Significantly, there were also double-digit increases in the yes vote for Proposition 64 in likely voter groups where Proposition 19 had previously fallen short. Notably, independents, moderates, and 35- to 54-year-olds joined Democrats, liberals, and younger voters to form a broader political and demographic coalition of Proposition 64 supporters this fall. Moreover, support grew from less than 50 percent in 2010 to include solid majorities in 2016 among men (47% to 64%), college graduates (47% to 61%), those earning $80,000 or more (46% to 60%), and whites (44% to 55%). In sum, Proposition 64 attracted more of a political mainstream following than Proposition 19 did.
Proposition 64 still did not win by a landslide even with these impressive gains in the depth and breadth of support. Fewer than 50 percent in key demographic groups supported the initiative. They include Republicans (33%), conservatives (31%), Californians age 55 and older (45%), Latinos (47%), women (48%), and the non-college educated (49%). Obviously, many Californians did not jump on the bandwagon and vote for marijuana legalization this year.
Finally, it is worth noting that when we asked voters if the outcome of the vote on Proposition 64 was very important to them, opponents of legalization were more likely to say "yes" than supporters were (60% to 50%). These views could play a critical role because marijuana legalization still faces many hurdles. Will the deep divisions among political and demographic groups surface in local communities when it’s time to implement the new law? Will California lawmakers side with the voters who passed marijuana legalization if the Republican president and Congress change direction on federal enforcement? As always in the initiative process, voters were the deciders but they are not the last word. Now many issues are left to local, state, and federal government officials to sort out.
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