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Will Liberal Ballot Issues Give Hillary Clinton an Edge?

Democrats hope to reprise 2004, when anti-gay marriage initiatives helped George W. Bush. But liberal measures may not have the same oomph.

Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

The 2004 presidential election is remembered for campaign tactics like the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth attacking John Kerry’s combat experience—and the failed parallel attack on George W. Bush’s Texas Air National Guard service. But politicos also remember 2004 as the year of the wedge issue. Karl Rove and his allies put eleven different state-level anti-gay marriage measures on the ballot, and according to several post-election studies, that helped mobilize the conservative base and increase the vote share for Bush in key swing states like Ohio.

Ever since then, Democratic strategists have chased the white whale, trying to find liberal wedge issues that could draw out their own base voters. In the 2014 midterms, they test-drove the strategy with initiatives in a handful of states. This year, there’s a bumper crop of ballot measures in the states—including many presidential swing states—to do everything from legalize pot to roll back interest rates. Theoretically, that’ll motivate turnout from left-leaning voters who remain cool to Hillary Clinton. But there’s reason to question whether or not the ballot-measure strategy actually works.

In November, nine states will vote on legalizing pot for medicinal purposes (Arkansas, Florida, Montana, North Dakota) or recreational use (Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada). Four states (Arizona, Colorado, Maine and Washington state) will vote on increasing the minimum wage (another, South Dakota, will seek to roll back its minimum wage for minors). California will try to lower prescription drug prices to the same level that the Veterans Administration pays. Colorado will attempt to install a single-payer health care system. Maine and Nevada have background checks for gun purchases on the ballot, while a California initiative would ban large-capacity magazines for ammunition. California, Missouri, North Dakota, and Colorado want to increase cigarette taxes; Oregon would increase the corporate tax on big businesses; South Dakota would cap interest rates on short-term loans to 36 percent.

By contrast, there are only a couple of conservative ballot measures out there (most notably, one that would make Virginia a “right-to-work” state). By and large, the conservative wedge issues of past years have disappeared. There’s not a single statewide ballot measure this year dealing with abortion or gay marriage.

Part of the reason for this is that conservative social issues, particularly opposition to gay rights, have grown unpopular. But the bigger reason is that conservatives don’t need to go to the ballot to pass their priorities. They can just go to the state capitol. Republicans have by and large taken control of government at the state level, thanks to big midterm election victories in 2010 and 2014. Republicans hold majorities in 69 of the nation’s 99 state houses, and have total control of the legislature in 31 states (that’s 30 plus the nominal Republican control of the allegedly “nonpartisan” unicameral Nebraska legislature), with Democrats controlling only eleven, and the other eight split.

For Democrats to get legislating again in those states, they’ll need to win elections. Otherwise, one of the only ways to break through is by taking issues directly to the ballot. This is supposed to have a win-win effect; not only could liberal issues become law at the state level, but the opportunity to vote on hot-button topics could drive liberals to the polls and help retake the state legislatures, or at least cut into Republican majorities. California Democratic Party chairman John Burton has been calling marijuana-related ballot measures the “secret weapon” for Democratic success since 2010.

In 2014, Democrats tried out their liberal wedge-issue strategy. Minimum-wage increases passed in four states (Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota), along with a non-binding measure in Illinois. Alaska and Oregon decriminalized marijuana use; Massachusetts instituted paid sick days; Washington state implemented background checks for all gun purchasers; and additional taxes on millionaires and businesses to fund school revenue passed in Illinois and Nevada.

This was good news for many low-wage workers, K-12 students, and would-be drug offenders. But it did nothing for Democrats up and down the ballot. Voter turnout nationwide was the lowest since World War II. Republicans picked up an additional 13 seats in the House, nine Senate seats, two more governorships, and eleven more legislative chambers. The result was a high-water mark for the Republican Party since 1928.

This included major losses in places with high-profile ballot measures pushed by the left. In Illinois, voters supported millionaire’s taxes and a higher minimum wage—but voted for a Republican governor. Arkansas flipped a Senate seat red. Voter turnout actually declined in South Dakota, where the minimum wage was on the ballot, while Oregon’s turnout was virtually identical to the previous midterm in 2010. Washington state saw the fewest voters for a midterm since 1978. Alaska did have the highest midterm turnout in 20 years, but it’s unclear whether to attribute that to ballot measures or hotly contested U.S. Senate and gubernatorial races. And Republicans won that Senate race, while an independent took the governor’s seat.

Midterms historically have lower turnout, and in recent years that has hampered the Democrats more, as the communities they need for success—young voters, people of color—match perfectly with low-propensity voters in non-presidential years. So 2016 will serve as a truer test of whether turnout can be aided by liberal ballot measures.

But historically, measures like legalizing marijuana have proven unable to attract more young voters to the polls. The fact that conservatives have walked off the wedge-issue field suggests that they don’t believe it has much of an impact—and that they see the 2004 gay-marriage gambit as sui generis, which it might well have been. The issue was high-profile and newly urgent, thanks to efforts by then-San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom and a ruling from the Massachusetts Supreme Court. That helped make the sale that Democratic lawmakers would inevitably usher in marriage equality, particularly in rural communities that were not yet ready to embrace it. The Bush campaign relied on fear of same-sex marriage to drive people to the polls.

That’s not quite the formula for this year’s crop of ballot initiatives. All of them have solid intentions—raising worker pay, ending mass incarceration of low-level drug offenders, making health care affordable, doing something about gun violence. But that might be the problem: These measures don’t attempt to scare voters into turning out. They play on hopes instead of fears. And if 2014 is any guide, that won’t move the needle.