While liberals and others openly applauded President Obama’s announcement two days ago that he now supports same-sex marriage, some backers openly worried about the electoral implications of his decision. They fear that by coming out for same-sex marriage, Obama provided conservatives, who to date have shown only tepid support for the presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney, a reason to turnout against Obama come November. This is exactly what happened in 2004, they claim, when John Kerry lost to George W. Bush because of gay marriage initiatives on the ballots in 11 states during that election, including the key battleground state of Ohio, which Bush barely won. Those ballot initiatives, they argue, increased turnout among conservatives – particularly among evangelicals – by enough to cost Kerry the election.
Those fears notwithstanding, I’m skeptical that Obama’s decision to back same-sex marriage will have major electoral implications. To begin, it’s not entirely clear that the ballot initiatives in 2004 had all that much impact on conservative turnout. While conservative turnout was up in the ballot initiative states by about 5% from 2000, it was up by a similar amount nationally. Moreover, there wasn’t much difference in turnout among white evangelicals in ballot initiative states versus other states without ballot initiatives. Indeed, exit polls indicate that the 2004 election primarily turned not on cultural issues like gay marriage, but on foreign policy (Iraq and terrorism) and the economy (taxes and jobs.) I expect that the same will hold true come November; media speculation to the contrary notwithstanding, several months from now voters will be much more concerned with job growth and the state of the economy than they will with Obama’s views on same-sex marriage.
Indeed, while his supporters are praising Obama for getting out front on this issue, my guess is that the ever pragmatic President would not have come out in favor of same-sex marriage without first calculating the likely electoral ramifications. Conservatives who oppose gay marriage weren’t likely to vote for Obama in the first place, and same-sex marriage supporters were already in his camp. And when it comes to those on the fence, Obama could take some solace that overall public opinion, as this recent Gallup Poll indicates, is trending in favor of same-sex marriage.
According to Gallup, in a span of a decade and a half, opposition to same-sex marriage has dropped 20%. Moreover, the Gallup results are consistent with trends from other surveys, including these Washington Post/ABC polls:
41. Do you think it should be legal or illegal for gay and lesbian couples to get married? Do you feel that way strongly or somewhat?
——— Legal ——— ——– Illegal ——– No
NET Strongly Somewhat NET Somewhat Strongly opinion
3/10/12 52 36 17 43 7 36 5
7/17/11 51 32 19 45 9 36 4
3/13/11 53 36 17 44 9 35 3
2/8/10 47 31 16 50 9 42 3
4/24/09* 49 31 18 46 7 39 5
6/4/06 36 24 13 58 7 51 5
8/28/05 39 NA NA 58 NA NA 3
8/29/04 RV 32 18 14 62 10 52 5
3/7/04 38 24 14 59 11 48 3
2/22/04 39 25 13 55 6 49 6
1/18/04 41 NA NA 55 NA NA 4
9/7/03 37 NA NA 55 NA NA 7
*2009 “gay and lesbian” and “homosexual” wordings half sampled. 2005 “gay and lesbian”, others “homosexual”.
The WaPo poll indicates that opposition to same sex marriage has dropped by about 12% since 2003. If these trends are accurate, Obama is probably going to gain more than he’s going to lose by taking this stand. This is not to say the issue does not remain divisive; as the recent ballot initiative in North Carolina banning even same sex civil unions reminds us, there remains strong regional opposition to same-sex marriage. Nonetheless, my read of public opinion trends suggests that Obama saw a chance to get on the same sex marriage train as it was beginning to pick up speed, rather than waiting until it had already left the station and was too far down the tracks. If Obama’s not the same-sex conductor, at least he’s not in the caboose.
Whether he would have jumped on board without Vice President Joe Biden’s apparently unsolicited prod is unclear. While many have suggested that Biden’s unscripted remarks are simply another reminder of the Vice President’s celebrated penchant for exhibiting foot-in-mouth disease, I’m not so sure. Joe may have apologized to the President for his remarks, but I suspect that he is actually quite pleased with his verbal “misstep”. Indeed, as a longtime Washington insider who understands how the media game works, it is not unlikely that Joe’s remarks were calculated to both put Obama on the spot but also provide a modicum of political cover to allow the President to do what he wanted to do anyway. This is a reminder that even within the President’s own executive family, the President is rarely “in charge”; subordinates who have strong policy preferences are not shy about using the media, either directly or through indirect leaks, to make those preferences known, even when the President prefers otherwise. Similarly, aides may resist complying with presidential wishes, at least until directly pushed, and usually it takes more than one push to induce compliance. This is not insubordination – it is how the Washington game is played.
Moreover, while we often talk about the president’s power to persuade – persuasion, as Biden understands, can work in both directions. In either case, however, the essence of the task remains the same: to convince someone that what you want them to do is what they ought to do for their own sake, and on their own authority. Evidently Biden, working with others, was able to persuade the President that it was in the President’s own political interest to take a public stand on this issue. It remains to be seen whether the voters will be persuaded as well. But all the signs indicate that Biden’s instincts are sound.