Will it Hurt or Help?
Many of us drawn to journalism are also drawn to history. We fancy ourselves as witnesses and are often inspired by the description of our profession as the “first rough draft of history,” even though we don’t wind up reporting true history every day.
Wednesday was different. For the first time, a U.S. president came out in favor of gay marriage. For the gay rights movement this was truly historic, a moment that will be recalled through the ages. No matter what the political outcome, President Obama will go down in history for what many of his supporters will see as a courageous decision on a social issue that tends to split the country right down the middle.
As for the political ramifications, frankly, it remains a bit uncertain. The 2012 election will be by all accounts close, possibly very close, and so anything the president can do now to rev up his Democratic base is probably a good thing. This will obviously help with gay voters, one of several Democratic Party constituencies that have been somewhat disappointed with the results of the Obama presidency so far. Another positive is that the gay community can raise a lot of money for the president and will presumably be more inclined than ever to do so.
Young voters in particular support the right to gay marriage and the president’s change of heart could have an impact on getting them back to the polls in 2008. The president benefited from record turnout among young and first time voters four years ago, and one of the recurring White House nightmares is that younger voters will return to their apathetic ways this year and stay home election day, possibly costing Mr. Obama a second term.
If the trend line continues, younger voters are likely to spur of wave of growing support down the line, which means a lot of politicians, especially in the Democratic Party, are going to be scrambling to catch up in the years ahead. In addition, gay characters and couples are prominently featured on American television programs now and seem more accepted than ever in the mainstream, especially by younger people who don’t quite get what all the fuss is about.
All that having been said, there are real political risks to the president’s decision. Gay marriage remains one of the most polarizing issues in the country and in a close election it could make a difference. Public opinion in support of gay marriage has been steadily building, but most polls still show a sharp divide over the issue, with supporters holding a very slim lead over opponents, including a 50-48 edge in a recent Gallup survey.
The state by state tally for gay marriage is also not favorable at the moment. The day before the president’s announcement, North Carolina became the 30th state to vote to define marriage as only between a man and a woman. Only six states and the District of Columbia have legalized gay marriage, while nine states currently permit civil unions or domestic partnerships.
Many political analysts noted that Republican Party candidate Mitt Romney’s response to the Obama announcement was fairly muted. No doubt social conservative leaders are happy, seeing the issue as something they can use against the president in November. One gay marriage opponent went so far as to say it will cost the president re-election.
But Romney has to tread carefully with independent voters and keep his focus on the economy to win in November. Getting into a fight with the president over social issues may help energize the Republican conservative base, but it probably won’t mean much to moderate swing voters trying to decide who will be the best leader on the economy come November.
In 2004, President George W. Bush’s re-election campaign made a point to highlight gay marriage as an issue in several battleground states. That effort paid off in a higher turnout for Bush among evangelical Christian voters than four years previous and helped him defeat Democrat John Kerry for a second term in office.
The politics are more complicated now. Clearly the country as a whole has shifted to basically a 50-50 deadlock on the issue, which is a victory for supporters given where the poll numbers were five or 10 years ago.
It should help the president with his Democratic base, but it might do the same for Mitt Romney among social conservatives, many of whom have found him wanting on social issues during the Republican primaries. It could also help the president among the most important target group for his re-election—independent voters. They tend to be more liberal on social issues and a bit more conservative on economic matters.
Either way, the president has made history on this issue. Whether it helps him or hurts him in November remains an open question.