Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Marriage evolution may cost Obama votes

President Obama’s evolution on marriage in which he returned to his previously stated position of supporting a right for same-sex couples to marry may hurt the president with black and independent voters in November. The president, who was widely believed to be a closeted supporter of same-sex marriage, removed all doubt in a statement last week in which he said that he personally believed that “it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same sex couples should be able to get married” according to ABC News.

The president did say that the issue belonged to the states, but his administration is not defending the federal Defense of Marriage Act. The act, passed with broad bipartisan support in 1996 prevents states from being required to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states and defines marriage as between a man and woman for the purposes of federal law.

Obama’s decision to endorse same-sex marriage is widely believed to have a positive effect on his re-election campaign. Gay marriage supporters typically point to polls that show that gay marriage has gained acceptance in the past decade. Some recent polls even show that gay marriage support outstripping opposition by small margins.

The vote on a definition of marriage amendment to North Carolina’s constitution should serve as a warning to those who believe that same-sex marriage is a winning issue for the president. Before the election, polling in North Carolina had indicated that voters in the Tar Heel State were poised to reject the amendment. In a Public Policy poll from September 2011 North Carolina voters opposed the amendment by a margin of 55-30 percent. Fifty-four percent of respondents favored legalizing gay marriage or civil unions. The results cut across party lines.

More recently, in April 2012, another Public Policy poll found that 53 percent of North Carolina voters supported either gay marriage or civil unions, while 54 percent of voters supported the marriage amendment. In the final analysis, the North Carolina marriage amendment passed by a margin of 61-39 percent according to CBS News, an even larger margin that polling had predicted especially given that the trend was in the direction of rejecting the amendment.

The potential problem for President Obama is that polls on same-sex marriage seem to consistently overstate its support in the electorate. Even though same-sex marriage has gained approval in opinion polls, it has never won at the ballot box. When Georgians voted on marriage in 2004, 76 percent favored traditional marriage according to results from the Secretary of State. Even in the bluest of the blue states, traditional marriage always wins out when the voters have a chance to decide. The logical conclusion is that polling about same-sex marriage errs on the side of gay marriage advocates.

The question is whether opposition to gay marriage will translate into opposition to President Obama now that he has publicly and irrevocably identified himself with the issue. Even a small number of voters who desert the president because of his stance on marriage may be enough to sway the election. In the swing states, the defection of voters over the marriage issue could prove decisive.

Just before the president’s announcement, Politico recently analyzed polls about same-sex marriage from several of the battleground states. In addition to North Carolina, a plurality of voters in Ohio, Florida, Virginia, and Iowa oppose same-sex marriage. The results from Pennsylvania were mixed. Since almost all of the swing states clearly support traditional marriage by large margins, President Obama runs the risk of alienating independent voters with his newfound support of gay marriage.

Black voters in particular represent a vulnerable constituency for the president. President Obama won 95 percent of black voters in 2008 according to the Roper Center. Yet according to a Pew poll, only 36 percent of black voters approve of same-sex marriage. Compounding the problem for Obama is that his economic policies have not been kind to blacks. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates the unemployment rate for blacks is at 13 percent, significantly above the national average. The question for 2012 is whether black voters will put ethnicity ahead of their social values and economic interests.

Until Election Day there is no way to know for certain the impact of President Obama’s endorsement of same-sex marriage. Early indications are that there are a wide range of reactions in the black community ranging from condemnation to cautious support. Often there seemed to be support and admiration for the president in spite of opposition to his stance. An Atlanta pastor, Rev. Tim McDonald, told CBS Atlanta, “You can say I'm opposed to it (same-sex marriage), but that doesn't mean I'm against the president.”

Precedent for this perception can be found in California in 2008 when Californians voted against same-sex marriage and for the Democratic Party, the pro-same-sex marriage party, at the same time. CBS Atlanta notes that 70 percent of blacks voted to preserve traditional marriage while 94 percent voted for then-Senator Obama. The difference is that, at the time, Obama supported traditional marriage as well even though many in his party did not.

In the final analysis, it is likely that President Obama’s position on same-sex will cost him votes, the question is how many. Even a relatively small percentage of defections from black and independent voters could radically alter the outcome of the election.

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