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Politics and Government

It wasn’t just cash: How texting cannabis voters and tech outreach strategies lifted Jared Polis to victory

The Democratic governor-elect employed unique strategies to help drive support and beat his Republican rival in Colorado’s governor’s race

Democratic nominee for governor Jared Polis takes direction before a debate at CBS 4 Denver's studio in Denver on Oct. 5, 2018. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)
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Jared Polis not only expressed support for the marijuana industry in his successful bid for Colorado governor, he made it part of his strategy to win.

In a new post-election memo shared with The Colorado Sun, the Democrat’s campaign reveals its unique strategy to reach cannabis voters, or what it called “a commonly overlooked political interest group,” and outlined how it managed to win on marijuana, a “typically third-rail issue.”

The unprecedented effort — employed in the primary and general election — extended well beyond industry fundraisers and campaign visits to cannabis operations.

Polis’ campaign used a state database to target industry employees, sent tailored text messages and mailers on the issue, held voter registration drives at dispensaries and hired a cannabis outreach director.

All of it dovetailed with Polis’ unwavering support for legalized cannabis at the state and federal level. “His unequivocal boldness on issues such as cannabis proved to be a valuable asset,” Jenn Ridder, Polis’ campaign manager, wrote in the memo.

The campaign’s tactics exemplified Polis’ broader approach to the campaign, where a combination of big money, technology and embrace of liberal issues helped propel him to victory.

Polis won 52 percent of the vote compared to 45 percent for his Republican rival, Walker Stapleton, according to unofficial election results. His victory broke barriers, making him the state’s first Jewish governor and the nation’s first openly gay man elected to the post.

Democratic candidate Jared Polis, left, participates in a debate with Republican candidate Walker Stapleton, right, on Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018, at the Lory Students Center on Colorado State University’s campus in Fort Collins, Colo. (Photo provided by Timothy Hurst/The Coloradoan)

How Jared Polis won the governor’s race

The reasons he won are clear: Polis tapped into the Democratic momentum in the 2018 election and, most significantly, put a record-setting $22.8 million from his own pocket into the campaign.

But in the memo the campaign points to a handful of major strategic decisions that were key to his wins in a contested party primary and a general election against a relative of the Bush administration backed by millions in outside spending.

The Polis campaign wavered little from start to finish — on messaging and staffing — and the robust primary battle tested the team for the November push. His big spending allowed for a saturating TV ad campaign that emphasized his business background in just about every commercial. Two other ads featured actions he took as a five-term congressman and the people he helped.

“The work to introduce Polis as a visionary leader who understood voters’ concerns stood in stark contrast to his opponent, who never convincingly introduced himself to Colorado voters,” Ridder said.

On the technology side, Polis used text messaging to drive people to his events and build momentum, which was particularly helpful in the Democratic primary. He also used social media to speak directly to supporters with his Facebook page engaging more than 1 million users per week. The use of both technologies is not new in elections, but Polis put extra emphasis on them.

And most importantly, Polis focused attention on unaffiliated voters starting in April, sending all his campaign’s persuasive mailers to them — rather than to Democratic voters. The strategy helped drive unaffiliated voters to the polls in both contests, tapping into broader discontent with President Donald Trump and making them the largest voting bloc in the 2018 election for the first time ever.

“While much of the national conversation was dominated by Trump and his divisive agenda, Polis didn’t run a campaign about just saying, ‘No.’ Polis was very clear that he would stand up to Trump when necessary, but he ran a campaign that said, ‘Yes,’ to an energetic and forward-looking vision for Colorado,” Ridder said.

A mailer sent to cannabis voters by Jared Polis’ campaign in the 2018 governor’s race. (Screenshot)

Where it all came together: the cannabis voter

The plan to target cannabis voters started with Polis’ approach to the issue. In 2012, he was one of the most prominent elected officials in Colorado to support Amendment 64, the measure that legalized recreational sale and use of marijuana. And he sponsored a measure backed by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders at the federal level to do the same.

“Other politicians must realize that this is a winning issue for candidates to run on,” Polis told The New York Times in a June interview.

To identify the voters, the campaign obtained the state database of employees registered to work in the cannabis industry and matched it with the voter file to identify a universe of potential Polis supporters for the primary and general election.

The campaign then targeted them with text messages and mailers — three in the primary and four in the November election. One text message took aim at then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who had suggested a crackdown on states with legal pot.

“Colorado’s cannabis industry has created thousands of jobs, added millions of dollars for schools, and has been a boost to our economy, not our prison population,” started one text message shared with The Sun. “Jared Polis is running for governor and will protect Colorado’s cannabis industry from Jeff Sessions and federal interference. Can we count on you to support Jared Polis by dropping off your ballot or by voting in person by November 6th?”

The mailers — later reviewed by The Sun — were similar in both elections and touted Polis’ message that the cannabis industry provides money to “classrooms not cartels” from tax revenue and “boosts our economy, not our prison population.” Another showed a picture of Trump and Stapleton, saying the Republican candidate for governor would “roll back marijuana legalization and allow a Trump administration crackdown” — which is a misrepresentation of his views.

Stapleton never made marijuana a major issue — in fact he said there was no way to repeal legalization — but he did say he wanted to tighten the regulations on medical card holders.

The cohort of voters who received the Polis messages was not huge — roughly 26,000, according to the campaign — but could have made a difference in a closer race.

Moreover, the vast majority did not fit in the universe the campaign would typically target with a get-out-the-vote push because they are not reliable voters. In the end, 46 percent of cannabis voters targeted cast ballots in the election.

In addition, the Polis camp put fliers next to cash registers at dispensaries, toured a hemp farming operations to highlight cannabis, and held fundraisers, the final of which drew more than 200 industry people. His cannabis outreach director jokingly went by the name Jonathan “Stone” Cherkoss.

“It’s a first. It’s absolutely a first that the Polis campaign engaged with cannabis companies,” said Peter Marcus, a spokesman for Terrapin Care Station, a marijuana grower and retailer.

“This is just the continuing evolution with the industry,” he continued. “Each year, we gain more clout, more influence. It’s obviously rewarding that the candidates want to work with us.”

For Polis, the cannabis push also frames his agenda once he takes office in January. The governor-elect has pledged to sign bills that would allow the industry to expand its pool of investors and allow for consumption at pot “tasting rooms.”

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