Opinion

Will Biden's marijuana pardons affect the midterms?

The sharpest opinions on the debate from around the web

On Thursday, Oct. 6, President Biden announced he would pardon thousands of people convicted of simple marijuana possession weeks ahead of the midterm elections. Biden's executive action will pardon citizens convicted in federal courts for simple marijuana possession between 1992 and 2021, which officials have estimated to be around 6,500 people, The New York Times reports. Biden stopped short of federally decriminalizing marijuana as he promised during his presidential campaign, which would require congressional approval. However, he encouraged governors to follow his lead in pardoning state-level simple possession convictions. He also appealed to the Secretary of Health and Human Services and the Attorney General to begin an "administrative process" to review how federal mandates schedule marijuana. 

The timing of this announcement has stirred a debate about how this decision will affect the outlook for Democrats going into the midterm elections. Here's what analysts had to say about the pardons' effect on the midterms: 

The White House is trying to entice voters in crucial demographics

It's no secret that Democrats are fighting tooth and nail going into the midterm elections, as the House and Senate control is up for grabs. Biden's approval numbers have shown slight increases over the past few weeks, but he has lost some ground with key demographics, including Black, Latino, and younger voters. Some people believe that this most recent announcement, coming on the heels of his highly-contested student loan forgiveness plan, is another last-minute ploy to regain support in demographics that could potentially swing Democrats a few wins in critical states. 

In an interview for their State of Play podcast, Axios senior politics correspondent Josh Kraushaar argued the White House selected this issue at this moment "because they want to excite the base of the parties, particularly younger voters that are following this issue very closely." It's proven to be a popular point of discussion for some candidates, Kraushaar continued, noting that Pennsylvania's Democratic Senate nominee John Fetterman has campaigned on the issue with increasing success. "So," Kraushaar predicted, "this is something that could very well excite [the base] and help Democrats on the margins."

Fetterman has urged Biden to decriminalize marijuana, and celebrated the recent announcement, calling it a "BFD and a massive step toward justice," Axios reports.

In his announcement, Biden commented that "Black and brown people have been arrested, prosecuted, and convicted at disproportionate rates" due to marijuana criminalization and the War on Drugs. His transparency on how these communities will benefit from the decriminalization of marijuana led some to believe he was purposefully targeting Black and Latino voters with his latest move. 

L. Joy Williams, a Democratic consultant in New York, was quoted in The Washington Post as saying that Biden's announcement raised an important issue for Black voters and that approaching the midterm season, Democrats "need to overperform among the tried and true Black Democrats."

Despite widespread support, this may not translate into votes

Bloomberg opinion columnist Jonathan Bernstein doesn't believe Biden's announcement will significantly impact the midterms, despite public opinion leaning towards legalizing marijuana. "It's doubtful that marijuana will make much difference in this fall's midterms," Bernstein commented.

Bernstein pointed out that Biden's pardons "falls far short of where the public is on this issue." A recent poll by the public opinion firm Civiqs reported that 69 percent of registered voters felt marijuana should be legal. Between the two parties, Democrats are more united on the issue, with 86 percent supporting legalization, while Republicans are split, 45 to 43 percent. Bernstein observes that there may be room among pro-marijuana Republicans for Democrats to sway some votes. However, he doubts it will work out that way. 

"There are only so many people open to flipping their planned vote at this point," notes Bernstein, "and of those, only a very limited number tell pollsters that marijuana policy is a high priority." 

Republicans could turn Dems' stance on marijuana against them

Some pundits believe Biden's move could backfire if Republicans manage to use the pardons against their Democrat opponents. In analysis for CNN, White House reporter Stephen Collinson acknowledges that Biden could "energize core Democratic constituencies" going into the midterms. "But it also risks playing into searing Republican attacks branding Democrats as soft on crime, which are rocking multiple key contests ahead of elections that could hand control of the Senate and the House of Representatives to the GOP," Collinson declared. 

Though Fetterman has leaned into campaigning on the issue in Pennsylvania, the flip side of the scenario is also playing out in the critical midterms state. A spokesperson for Republican Senate candidate Mehmet Oz told Axios, "We love having yet another opportunity to highlight just how extreme John Fetterman is — he wants to go even further than Biden — he'd decriminalize hard drugs like fentanyl and crystal meth that are literally killing Pennsylvanians." 

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