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Potential political pitfalls of Barack Obama’s support for same-sex marriage

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President Obama speaking to ABC
There is no denying the significance of President Barack Obama’s statement this week that he believes same-sex couples should be allowed to marry.

Despite the reality that marital relationships are governed by state law so that presidential pronouncements on the subject are practically immaterial, this is a watershed moment. Symbolism matters in politics.

Moreover, President Obama and his administration – Vice President Joe Biden’s earlier expression of support for same-sex marriage was not another “Biden gaffe” – deliberately chose to take a stand on this controversial issue at this pivotal moment. The president had long asserted that he still believed that marriage was reserved for a man and a woman, but endorsed the right of gays and lesbians to enter into civil partnerships. He also noted that his views were “evolving” on an ongoing basis.

All Americans, regardless of what their own views are on same-sex marriage, should respect President Obama for candidly announcing exactly where he stands in the highly-charged context of an election year. It took guts. A lot of observers, including this one, didn’t think he would do so.

Some of his advisors surely counseled him not to do so.

In the short time since President Obama declared his support for same-sex marriage, political analysts of every hue have been pondering the impact that definitively “taking a side” will have on his re-election chances. One view, which has been prominently articulated, is that Obama’s bold move will have little or no impact on his re-election prospects.

 The logic behind this view is as follows. Voters who have a problem with same-sex marriage would not have supported President Obama’s re-election anyway. His stance will fire up wealthy donors on the coasts, activists, young people and other elements of the left-wing coalition who helped him defeat Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary and then win the presidency. Many of these voters either were not active or did not vote in the 2010 mid-term congressional elections and Democrats suffered losses as a result.

Additionally, the logic goes, most floating voters won’t make their minds up based solely on the issue of same-sex marriage. This is all largely true.

Furthermore, those who take this view can point to national opinion polls revealing that slightly more than half of the American people now believe in the right of same-sex couples to marry. This is a dramatic shift from opinion polls taken in the mid-1990s which showed that only a quarter of Americans felt that way. This seeming change in public opinion illustrates just how efficacious campaigners for same-sex marriage have been in winning over hearts and minds to their cause. So, is that it? Far from it.

The fact is that President Obama’s stated support for same-sex marriage poses a real threat to his re-election bid. Here’s why those who believe this to be a political zero sum game are wrong.

First, while there is no question that Obama’s statement will energise the left and, most especially, younger voters, it will equally energise voters on the right, particularly evangelical Christians. These voters, who are sceptical about Mitt Romney for a number of reasons, finally have something to galvanise them around his candidacy.

Conversely, there was almost nothing that could have caused them to similarly rally around John McCain, the last Republican presidential nominee. The 2004 election evidences how this might play out. In that presidential election year, conservatives and evangelicals were enraged by a decision of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in 2003 that effectively mandated the introduction of same-sex marriage in that state. They feared what might lie ahead and mobilised to prevent it. Same-sex marriage bans were approved by varying, yet healthy, margins in 11 states, including Ohio. The heightened activism and turnout they generated on Election Day helped President George W. Bush to a second term.

Second is the issue of floating voters. The reality is that this campaign is going to come down to a relatively small number of floating voters. Although where their votes go is typically dictated by their economic fortunes, some, perhaps especially in Ohio, are heavily influenced by a candidate’s stand on social and cultural issues. A significant percentage of these voters in Ohio may not be able to stomach the president’s support for same-sex marriage.

President Obama’s advisors know that their chances of prevailing in Ohio have taken a hit. Running against Mitt Romney, a former venture capitalist who oversaw the loss of high-paying manufacturing jobs there and throughout the “rust belt,” has become more complicated.

Now, Romney can use President Obama’s support of same-sex marriage, not to mention other social and cultural issues, to make the choice in November a lot harder for many Ohioans. It will only take a small number to turn the tide – the president won just 51.5% of the vote there in 2008. Losing Ohio would be a severe, and potentially deadly, blow to the president’s re-election hopes.

Third is the Hispanic vote. Hispanic voters in the United States remain something of an unknown quantity. Much has been written and said in the media that they tend to be culturally conservative and that negative attitudes about homosexuality are prevalent among male and older Hispanics. Endorsing same-sex marriage could cost the president some hard-earned support in “new” battleground states, such as New Mexico and Colorado, where Hispanic communities are large enough to tilt the balance one way or the other. Victories in these two states would be essential if President Obama were to lose Ohio.

Lastly, and maybe most importantly, the opinion polls reflecting that a majority of Americans now support same-sex marriage are extremely difficult to reconcile with what has happened at the ballot box time and time again.

Just this past week, 61% of voters in North Carolina voted not only to ban same-sex marriage, but to forbid any kind of legal recognition of same-sex relationships whatsoever. North Carolinians voted to do by an overwhelming margin so even though opponents of the measure spent a tremendous amount of money to achieve a different result and utilised former President Clinton in an attempt to sway public opinion. North Carolina is the latest of dozens of states to enact same-sex marriage bans since 2003. In fact, on the historic night in 2008 when Barack Obama won the presidency, voters in Arizona, Florida and, notably, liberal California approved bans on same-sex marriage. These results simply do not comport with the opinion polls. There is certainly more buy-in for same-sex marriage in 2012, yet the polls may overstate it.

There is a precedent for this, known as the “Bradley effect.” In 1982, all the late polls showed then-Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, an African-American, defeating his Republican opponent in that year’s gubernatorial election. The polls, which prompted at least one newspaper to print headlines indicating that Bradley was the new governor, were wrong. The Republican prevailed.

Most analysts attributed the errant polls to a feeling among some white voters in California that, if they stated their support for the white candidate, they could be open to the charge of racism. This feeling skewed the polls. The very same phenomenon may be at work in 2012 on the issue of same-sex marriage. Supporting same-sex marriage is certainly regarded as the “politically correct” position to take. And again, the results of referendum after referendum would seem to indicate that what some people say publicly does not reflect what they ultimately do in the privacy of the ballot box.

In the end, not a lot of voters will decide whether to vote for Barack Obama or Mitt Romney on the basis of their views on same-sex marriage. It’s still the economy, stupid. But a small number will, and that could be enough to be decisive in November.

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