President Obama’s surprise announcement yesterday that he now supports marriage equality for same-sex couples brought great joy to two very different groups of people. The first were same-sex couples and LGBT folk, as well as Democrats who no longer have to apologize for a president whose position is still “evolving.” The second group is a little less obvious: the cultural crusaders of the Right, who can now make a stronger argument that social issues should be a focus of the Republicans’ campaign strategy.
Mitt Romney’s campaign strategists are caught in between, left with a strategic dilemma. Using the issue of same-sex marriage to try to mess with Obama’s electorate base—blacks and Hispanics—will be incredibly tempting. But a strident anti-gay marriage campaign, while it may excite conservative interest groups, distracts from Romney’s preferred focus on the economy—and poses a major risk of alienating swing voters and independents.
Republicans can’t ignore that the conservative point of view on same-sex marriage is clearly, if slowly, losing ground in the general electorate. Polls have consistently shown support for marriage equality achieving plurality if not majority support during the last couple of years. Typical was a Gallup survey last week that showed 50 percent of Americans supporting legalized gay marriage, with just 48 percent opposing it. Just as important, the shrinking percentage of Americans opposing gay marriage is increasingly concentrated in the GOP, which reduces their value as swing voters. The same Gallup poll showed self-identified independents supporting gay marriage by a 57-40 margin, far closer to the Democrats’ 65-34 division than to the Republicans’ 22-to-74 split.
And voter intensity on this topic has shifted even more dramatically. According to NBC-Wall Street Journal survey data, in 2004—the last presidential year when this topic was thought to have mattered—opponents of gay marriage enjoyed a greater than two-to-one margin over supporters (62-30). But fully 51 percent of Americans strongly opposed gay marriage, while only 18 percent strongly supported it. As of March 2012, strong supporters of marriage equality (32 percent) have caught up and even passed strong opponents (31 percent).
That’s the demographic reality Obama recognized, preempting what was beginning to look like a real problem for him this summer. There was a growing movement—endorsed already by eleven state party chairs—to place support for marriage equality in the 2012 Democratic platform. Given the president’s total control of the platform process, he would eventually have had to embrace it or squelch it; there’s not much of a middle ground any more on the basic proposition of marriage equality.
Despite all the deterrents for waging an anti-gay marriage campaign, Republicans are sure to fixate on how this will affect two crucial factions of the Democratic voting base: African-Americans and Hispanics. The most recent Pew survey on the subject showed African-Americans opposing gay marriage by a 49-39 margin. That’s a considerable improvement in support for marriage equality from the 63-26 margin of opposition Pew found in 2008, but given the increasingly heavy support of white Democrats for marriage equality, still a pretty striking anomaly. And a 2011 Pew poll suggested that Hispanic Catholics remain more likely to oppose gay marriage than white Catholics. Hispanic Protestants tend to be more conservative on nearly all issues, but as (usually) evangelicals, they are especially likely to oppose gay marriage. Given the GOP’s general problem with Hispanics—due to a recent bender on immigration policy, not to mention hostility to a social safety net—it will be tempting for them to try to make this a wedge issue.
Their model may be Ohio in 2004, when an anti-gay marriage ballot initiative and the Bush campaign’s intensive outreach effort to African-American churches may have made a crucial difference in the state that decided the presidential election. But following that strategy is unlikely to pay off as easily this year. That’s because there won’t be as many gay marriage initiatives on state ballots in November this year as in many recent cycles, and they’ll largely be in states that Obama is certain to carry (Maine, Minnesota, Washington, and Maryland).
So any effort to use the issue will have to involve more overt partisan politicking, which some conservative evangelical ministers—and particularly African-American ministers loath to openly oppose the first African-American president—will be reluctant to embrace. Republicans could deploy targeted, under-the-radar appeals on same-sex marriage, but it will be tricky to do so without letting the passions associated with this and other cultural issues get out of hand, creating a distraction at best and a backlash at worst. Perhaps Republicans would have been better off in the end had Obama “evolved” a bit more slowly.
Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic, a blogger for The Washington Monthly, and managing editor of The Democratic Strategist.