California Forum

Will pot initiative energize Sanders supporters to vote in November?

California’s presidential primary was preceded by a surge in online voter registration reflecting the wave of youthful enthusiasm that surfaced nationwide for Democratic candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Indeed, the May survey by the Public Policy Institute of California reported that Sanders was the solid favorite for those under age 45, while his support registered at 44 percent among all Democratic presidential primary voters.

Ultimately, the “Feel the Bern” movement fell short of its goal of a victory in California. Sanders is garnering 45 percent of the vote – amounting to 2.2 million voters, according to the latest California primary figures.

What’s next for Sanders supporters in the wake of a disappointing loss? They will find ballot initiatives – and one in particular – of great interest in California’s November election. For this reason, we expect to see the Sanders voters return to the polls and have a broad impact on election outcomes.

First and foremost is an initiative that would legalize the recreational use of marijuana. Public support for legalizing marijuana has risen to 60 percent among California likely voters, and it is very high among young adults. The youthful nature of the Sanders vote would predict its popularity with this group. In fact, 82 percent of the Sanders primary likely voters said “yes” to our question on legalizing marijuana compared with 60 percent of the Clinton likely voters and 44 percent of the Trump primary likely voters.

Other states with marijuana legalization initiatives on the ballot – notably Colorado and Washington – have seen a larger-than-expected youth vote in their elections, according to our polling colleagues in these states. Thus, we expect to see the Sanders voters return to the polls – this time to try to make history by passing a marijuana legalization measure that now seems poised to win.

The return of Sanders voters will also have important implications on tax initiatives this fall. The majority of these voters describe themselves as liberals. Specifically, 83 percent of Sanders voters say they favor the Proposition 30 tax extension on the wealthy, while just 51 percent of other likely voters support it. Overall, 58 percent of likely voters say they favor the Proposition 30 tax extension to fund education and health care.

Moreover, 75 percent of Sanders supporters favor a tax increase on cigarettes that is headed for the ballot, while 65 percent of other likely voters support it. The tax increase – which would be used to pay health care costs – is supported by 67 percent of likely voters overall.

The views of Sanders voters will also have reverberations in the candidate races in the November election. Beginning at the top of the ticket, Hillary Clinton is overwhelmingly favored over businessman Donald Trump by Sanders voters (75 to 19 percent). Attorney General Kamala Harris has a 9 percentage point lead over Rep. Loretta Sanchez in the U.S. Senate race among Sanders voters (45 to 36 percent) in our May PPIC Survey.

How about state and federal legislative races? Sanders voters have an overwhelmingly unfavorable impression of the Republican Party (88 percent) and the majority have a favorable impression of the Democratic Party (58 percent), so we can expect them to lean Democratic as the Democrats strive to regain control of the U.S. House and a two-thirds majority in the state Assembly and state Senate.

Sanders has been a powerful inspiration for the state’s young voters in this year’s presidential primary. It’s likely that the marijuana initiative back by Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom will drive this large and influential bloc to the polls for a second chance to shake up the establishment in the fall election.

Mark Baldassare is president and CEO of the Public Policy Institute of California. Contact him at