Same-Sex Marriage: Reigniting the Culture War?

Presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney gave a highly publicized speech at the conservative Liberty University yesterday.  The speech was billed as an opportunity for Romney to reach out to a group – evangelicals – who so far have shown him only lukewarm support during the Republican nomination race.  (Most of you will recall that high turnout among evangelicals was the single most consistent predictor of a Romney primary loss.) Many pundits wondered whether Romney would use the Liberty University speech as an opportunity to push back against President Obama’s recent announcement that he now supported same-sex marriage. Indeed, social commentators such as Patrick Buchanan argued that Obama’s open support of same-sex marriage – “the Antietam of the culture war” – might cost him the presidency.  “Obama,” Buchanan declared in reference to Obama’s decision to publicly back same-sex marriage, “may also have just solved Mitt Romney’s big problem: How does Mitt get all those evangelical Christians and cultural conservatives not only to vote for him but to work for him?”

Cue the Liberty University speech. However, rather than make Obama’s declaration the centerpiece of his address, Romney only referenced gay marriage once, saying, “Culture — what you believe, what you value, how you live — matters. As fundamental as these principles are, they may become topics of democratic debate from time to time. So it is today with the enduring institution of marriage. Marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman.” Although that statement triggered a standing ovation and the largest applause of the address, Romney did not elaborate this point, nor did he address social cultural issues more generally. Nor did he discuss his Mormon faith, choosing instead to speak more generally about Judeo-Christian values.

Why didn’t Romney come out more strongly against same-sex marriage?  There are two reasons, I think.  First, he can read the public opinion trend lines as well as anyone.  As I noted in my last post, opposition to same-sex marriage has been dropping during the last decade, so that today, as this Pew Poll indicates, a slight plurality of the public now supports same-sex marriage.

Other polls suggest support is over 50%. This trend follows growing support for accepting homosexuality more generally.

More importantly, about half of independents, who promise to be the key voting bloc come November, are also same-sex marriage supporters.  That’s up by 18% in the last decade-and-a-half.

There’s a clear generational bias at play here, with younger voters – the so-called millennials – showing greatest support for same-sex marriage, while opposition is strongest among the oldest cohort.  Interestingly, most African-Americans still oppose same-sex marriage, although support is growing among this group as well.  There is little risk, however, that their opposition will lead them to vote against Obama come November.

The bottom line is that Romney recognizes what I argued in my last post: that support for same-sex marriage is not going to hurt Obama, and it may help him, particularly among younger voters and, possibly, independents.  It may also have given Obama a short-term fundraising boost among his base.  To be sure, some 30-plus states have banned same-sex marriage, so this is not to say that Obama wants to make this the centerpiece of his reelection bid.  But neither does it suggest that Romney will gain much by publicizing his opposition.

This leads me to the second reason why Romney did not make a bigger deal of his opposition to same-sex marriage: it’s not an issue that concerns many Americans.  Consider this bevy of polls at asking what Americans consider to be the most important issue facing the country.  Cultural issues, such as gay rights, same-sex marriage or family values, barely register in the single digits.   Economic issues, including jobs and the budget deficit, on the other hand, consistently top the list of highest concerns among a strong majority of those polled.   The implication is clear: while same sex headlines may grab the headlines today- David Gregory made it the centerpiece on Meet the Press this morning –  and while it is of deep concern to activists in both parties, this issue is simply not going to be influencing very many voters come November.  It may be, as Buchanan would have us believe, that “everything is up for grabs this November: the House, the Senate, the presidency, the Supreme Court and whether we still call the United States of America God’s country.”  The reality, however, is that November’s vote will not turn on whether and how voters read the Bible – it will turn on what’s in their pocketbooks. It’s still the economy, stupid.

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