Only a few hours after Barack Obama told Robin Roberts that he supported the right of same-sex couple to marry, than the Obama administration sent an email out to supporters touting his statement. “Marriage,” it said. The emails have continued for the next several days, and the top of Mr. Obama’s campaign website has been devoted to an announcement that he was by all accounts dragged into making.
But the odd thing about the hyping of the marriage announcement is that same-sex marriage is, by any metric, an electoral loser. As Greg Lewis, a professor of public management and policy at Georgia State University told Ezra Klein yesterday, there is majority support for same-sex marriage in 16 only states, all of which are safe states for Mr. Obama. He speculates that there may majority support in a few more since most recent polls, including super-safe Maryland and Illinois, lean-blue Wisconsin and Minnesota, and lean-red Arizona. The rest then, including every single swing state no matter wide or narrow the gap is against same-sex marriage or at the very best neutral.
And its not just polls. Thirty-two times when voters have gone to vote and been asked if they want to ban same-sex marriage, and all 32 they have answered in the affirmative. Yes, attitudes are changing, and strong majorities of base Democratic voters and young people are in favor of gay marriage, and certainly the politics have changed on this quicker than anyone imagined, but even in the bluest and most gay-friendly state of them all, California, voters rejected marriage equality. It is hard to imagine any other issue in which the president is as at odds with where centrist voters are.
But this does not necessarily mean that the issue will mean certain defeat for Obama at the ballot box come November. A pollster recently told NPR that not one single respondent this year has told them that gay marriage is their most important issue—it’s always the economy, jobs, housing, and the like. Thus, the best the Obama campaign may be able to hope for is that while voters, if asked, disapprove of gay marriage, they will, in 2012, not be asked. Instead, they will be asked to choose between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, and their opinions on marriage equality will not factor into voters decisions.
In 2012, there will not be a national referendum on gay marriage. And Republicans do not seem inclined to make it one, with House Speaker John Boehner telling reporters, ”I believe that marriage is the union of one man and one woman. And the president and the Democrats can talk about all this all they want. But the fact is, the American people are focused on our economy, and are asking the question, Where are the jobs?”
There very well may be a larger universe of voters who do not want marriage equality but are turned off by any thing that approaches the demonization of gays, but what seems to not square is how the Obama campaign does want to make this race about gay marriage. A few months ago I wrote about how LGBT activists were pushing Mr. Obama to come down on the marriage question before the Democratic National Convention, and I was surprised to find that there were a crew of Democratic partisans and LGBT activists who wanted Mr. Obama to go slow on the issue, fearful that it would dampen enthusiasm among core constituencies like black and Latino voters. The constituencies that will be energized by Mr. Obama’s announcement—young people and the LGBT community—are a notoriously unreliable voting constituency in the first place, and a reliable Democratic one in the second.
The fact that the campaign is now touting the president’s statement may give some lie to the notion that the president was planning on coming around on this issue all along, but was merely pushed by Joe Biden. Instead, their reaction this past week has been closer to the effect of, if you have to go forward, go hard, and try to reap whatever positive benefit can be mustered. But if they continue, it could backfire come November.
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