I invited myself to David Niven’s Campaigns and Elections class at the University of Cincinnati this week under the guise of wanting to learn from this group of mostly political science majors.
But truth be told, I really just wanted to prove myself correct.
For months I had listened to “experts” on both sides of the marijuana legalization debate in Ohio tell me why the issue will pass or fail on Nov. 3.
Through their warnings about a future filled with dangerous pot gummy bears, greedy monopolies, racially unfair drug arrest rates, and the daily suffering of those who need medical marijuana but can’t buy it legally, one clear fact emerged:
Voter turnout alone will decide whether pot becomes legal in Ohio.
And not just the die-hard voters who shuffle to the polls whenever they’re open, rain or shine, to cast their ballots with the same regularity as they brush and floss their teeth.
The Yes on Issue 3 folks need young voters. And while this generation may overwhelmingly support legalizing marijuana, they are also notoriously lazy about voting.
In Hamilton County, millennial voters ages 18 to 34 routinely have the worst turnout of any generation. In the 2013 election, only 11.2 percent of registered millennial voters cast their ballots. And that's just registered voters.
“So how many of you are registered to vote?” I asked the class of 16 in a windowless room of UC’s Swift Hall on Oct. 19.
I counted 13 raised hands.
Pretty impressive, I thought.
“So how many of you are absolutely going to vote on Nov. 3?” I asked, adding the conditions of pouring rain, sickness, a late night before and a long day of exams ahead.
Seven students raised their hands.
“We’re going to hold you to that,” Niven said, chuckling.
“So what about the maybes?” I asked, looking for the fair-weather voters.
Six hands raised.
Now wait a minute. The entire class supports legalizing marijuana, or so they told me with stares that made me feel very old. Yet half won’t even promise they’ll vote.
Then I remembered what Niven had told me in late June, long before he knew these particular students, when I was writing an earlier story about the marijuana ballot issue.
“I don’t know that a typical student cares that much about the issue," he said then. "I don’t see it as anywhere near their top 10."
Surely that can’t still be the case. Not after ResponsibleOhio has spent a fortune on a college campus blitz this fall, with a campaign tour bus circling the state.
What about their TV and radio ads, direct mailings, phone calls and emails? What about the bumper stickers, door hangars and dorm window signs? What about the Facebook badges, social media blitz, and text messages and videos from soon-to-be announced musicians, all aimed at millennials?
“You’ll start to see that layering in. It’s a big layer effect,” ResponsibleOhio’s executive director Ian James told me recently, as he explained how successful the campaign has been at reaching young voters.
“They love the stickers, I’m telling you,” he said. “It’s chum. They stick them on their laptops.”
Well, I didn’t see any of these stickers in class. Why not?
“No, why would I do that, so my mom or my grandmother thinks I’m a stoner?” one student said.
The rest of the class jumped in, explaining that a pro-pot sticker would make them look bad to their professors, parents and bosses.
Huh. I had never thought about it that way.
Well clearly “Buddie” the green pot bud mascot of ResponsibleOhio, must have some fans in the room. This cute little guy, who actually resembles a Brussel Sprout, even made a guest appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
“Buddie speaks to that millennial voter in such a goofy way,” James said a few weeks ago. “They see Buddie as this sort of goofy, irreverent, Stephen Colbertesque sort of in-your-face politics … Whenever we are on campus it is like, ‘I want my picture with Buddie.’ It’s crazy. It’s just crazy.”
So I asked the class: “What do you all think of Buddie?”
“I think it’s stupid,” Darren Cooley said. “I feel like its kind of demeaning that we need a mascot to get these kids out to vote. I think it makes the whole ‘Yes On 3’ campaign look juvenile in the eyes of other adult voters.”
“It’s funny for like, a minute,” another student chimed in. “Not even a minute.”
Yet the class was just as critical of the anti-Issue 3 ads, laughing at the alarmist tactics to scare parents with pot gummy bears, and the dim file footage of old white men who were supposed to represent the marijuana monopoly owners, all sitting at a table with a pile of a cash and a 1980’s adding machine.
These students could rather impressively dissect campaign ads and debate the pros and cons of issue campaigns. But they did it all pretty lifelessly.
They just didn’t seem to care if Issue 3 passed or failed.
Afterward, Niven admitted he’d seen students more excited for past Cincinnati City Council races than for legalizing marijuana this year. Earlier this fall a former student who now works for ResponsibleOhio told Niven that paid internships for campus field operations were available. Niven announced the offer in class, but is almost certain none one pursued it.
“And those are paid internships,” he said, chuckling at such a rarity.
No one knows what will happen on Nov. 3, even if this class is just an outlier. But from Niven’s perspective, what the pro-pot campaign seemed to lack is word-of-mouth momentum. That critical force multiplier that inspires students to debate their friends and retweet campaign messages without being asked.
In other words, this campaign just didn’t inspire them.
“I would say that for the vast majority of voters there’s a lack of urgency in this election. Urgency will come when they’re choosing between Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton,” he said.
In the meantime, he predicts that voters this year will “skew extra old.”
So after I brush and floss my teeth on Nov. 3, I’ll head out to vote, just as I always do.
And that evening after the polls close, I’ll pick up the phone to call political experts for their insight on the voting results, just as I always do.
But this year, I’ll add a few extra calls into my rotation.