President Barack Obama’s county-by-county victories in Colorado virtually mirrored the vote to legalize marijuana use in the state – in all but nine mostly rural counties, pot passed in places that supported the president’s re-election bid and failed in places that supported Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
Only one county that bucked the trend – Weld, where voters backed Romney and legalizing pot – was along Colorado’s highly populated Front Range. The rest were small, rural counties scattered across the high country, Western Slope and southwestern parts of the state.
And in the view of several political operatives and observers, Obama’s broad support – he won six of seven Denver-metro counties – may have played a big hand in the passage of Amendment 64, which legalized the possession and use of up to 1 ounce of marijuana by people 21 and older.
“I don’t think that Obama’s going to be crediting pot for his victory in Colorado,” said pollster Lori Weigel of Public Opinion Strategies. “I think that the pot people ought to be patting the Obama people on the back. The tail didn’t wag the dog.”
The relationship between Obama’s victory and the passage of Amendment 64 was apparent in an I-News examination of preliminary election results:
Obama won all three of the heavily populated swing counties – Arapahoe, Jefferson and Larimer – that have become reliable predictors of the state’s results. Vote tallies available Wednesday showed that Obama’s biggest margin of victory was in Arapahoe County, once reliably Republican, where he grabbed 53 percent of the vote.
San Miguel and Pitkin counties, home to Colorado luxury resort towns Telluride and Aspen, had the highest percent “yes” vote for the marijuana amendment. In San Miguel, 79.2 percent of voters said “yes” while in Pitkin it was 75.3 percent of voters.
Two Eastern Plains counties had the lowest percentage for marijuana vote – Kiowa, with 32 percent supporting it, and Cheyenne, with 35.7 percent. Not one of 16 rural Eastern Plains counties supported Amendment 64.
Obama generally won the vote battle in the major Democratic counties compared with Romney’s numbers in major Republican counties. For example, Obama won 73.5 percent of the votes in Denver while Romney won 59.4 percent of the votes in the Republican stronghold of El Paso County. And Obama took 69.6 percent of the Boulder County vote, compared to Romney winning 62.6 percent of the Douglas County vote.
Among the nine counties that did not fit the pro-Obama, pro-pot pattern, Romney won eight of them and voters approved Amendment 64, indicating the possible influence of Libertarian voters. Only Conejos County supported Obama and said “no” on 64.
Weigel, who has been involved in polling for candidates and ballot measures in Colorado for more than 15 years, said she believes the link between Obama’s win and the passage of Amendment 64 can be attributed to one thing: Younger voters.
Although demographic data on those who actually voted in Colorado wasn’t available Wednesday, Obama was widely credited with doing much better than Romney among voters in the 18-29 age group. And that group also was expected to provide the heaviest support for the marijuana legalization measure.
“That dramatic distinction has held throughout this election cycle that never went away,” Weigel said of the support Obama enjoyed among younger voters. “There was a reason that Obama went to Boulder and practically every college campus in the country. Those are not swing counties – he knew he had to turn out young voters.”
Indeed, Obama made 11 campaign trips to Colorado during 2012 – and during them visited the University of Colorado three times and made stops at Colorado State University, the Air Force Academy and the three-school Auraria campus in Denver. His final campaign visit to the state, on Sunday, featured a rally at Community College of Aurora. He also made an appearance at Grand Junction High School.
Romney, by comparison, made one stop on the Auraria campus and three others to Colorado high schools during 2012.
Longtime Republican strategist Dick Wadhams, who has managed campaigns for numerous GOP candidates and previously headed the state party, said he believes Obama’s victory in Colorado and other swing states had much to do with the way the president’s campaign defined Romney in the summer – and with the failure of the former Massachusetts governor to define himself differently during those crucial months.
But Wadhams also agreed with Weigel’s assessment, saying that he believed Obama won the “young” vote by a margin in the neighborhood of 2-to-1 and “that in generating a higher vote among young voters, it actually helped the marijuana initiative and not vice-versa.”
“I think that’s exactly right,” Wadhams said.
And Denver political consultant Eric Sondermann said a pattern like that seen in the Obama and Amendment 64 votes “can’t just be random.”
“I’m skeptical that the marijuana initiative pulled a lot of voters out to the polls who otherwise weren’t coming,” he said. “If they weren’t coming to vote for or against Obama, for or against Romney, I really don’t think 64 was a sufficient magnet.
“Was Obama enough of a draw to young voters to perhaps impact it? Yes.”
Eight of the nine counties that did not support both Obama and the marijuana initiative – Garfield, Grand, Mineral, Rio Grande, Teller, Chaffee, Park and Archuleta – have small enough populations that they could be considered statistical outliers. In Chaffee County, the preliminary tally showed marijuana passing comfortably but Romney clinging to a lead of three votes.
Two other factors also may have helped Amendment 64.
“Colorado voters struck me in a more liberal mood – to overuse that ‘L’ word – than in some past years,” Sondermann said. “And it’s not just at the presidential level. If you look at some state legislative results, Democrats were winning seats in swing counties, Jefferson for starters, but not just winning them narrowly, winning them big. Even in conservative Colorado Springs, Democrats won two legislative seats by really substantial margins. School bond issues and mill-levy issues were passing not just in Denver and places where you expected them to pass, but also in small-town and rural Colorado.”
And Weigel said that the backers of 64 were “very smart” in drafting the amendment so that it would regulate and tax pot.
“Actually, in many ways, the way it was positioned was constraining, controlling,” she said. “My general sense is that people see it as practically legal now, and why wouldn’t you tax it and regulate it in a practical manner?”