Will Obama’s Wednesday embrace of same-sex marriage equality hurt him in November? The short answer is: possible, but not likely.
First, as a general proposition, it seems unlikely that there are large numbers of socially conservative voters who lean Obama today but will be transformed into opponents simply by his declared support for marriage equality. Obama’s backing for equality for gays has, after all, been apparent throughout his administration, most famously in ending the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy in the military. A voter who’s stuck with Obama through all that is unlikely to be stampeded in the opposite direction by a position that follows so directly from those previous actions.
Second, the idea that this position will put him at serious risk among minority voters is vastly overblown. It is true that black voters are relatively conservative on this issue. According to the latest Pew poll, 49 percent oppose same sex marriage compared to 43 percent overall. But opposition among blacks is declining very rapidly indeed—down almost 4 points a year over the last four years. And it seems fanciful that many black opponents of gay marriage will transcend their very strong loyalty to the Democratic Party in general, and Obama, the first African-American president, in particular to vote against him solely on that basis.
Hispanics are also not a plausible candidate for significant desertions based on the issue. They are not even particularly conservative on marriage equality: In the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 55 percent supported marriage equality compared to 49 percent overall. We should not expect to see many Hispanics abandoning Obama simply on this issue and embracing his opponent, Mitt Romney, who holds hugely unpopular positions on immigration, an issue of far more importance to these voters.
Indeed, many issues are more important to minority voters than gay marriage—or other social issues for that matter. Over the years, these voters have shown great reluctance to cast their ballots on social issues and this time is unlikely to be any different.
Finally, white working class voters, who already support the President at only modest levels, are unlikely to be further swayed toward Romney based on this issue. In the Pew poll, around 42 percent of this group supported marriage equality, compared to 47 percent overall. But that 42 percent figure is actually higher than these voters’ expressed support for Obama in the Presidential race—just 35 percent in the same poll. So marriage equality is actually more popular among the white working class than the President at the current time.
Another line of argument is that socially conservative Romney backers might be more likely to turn out and vote, now that Obama has endorsed marriage equality. Perhaps, though these voters have a deep reservoir of suspicion about Romney’s true beliefs to overcome. But it seems equally likely, if not more so, that Obama’s unambiguous backing of marriage equality will pay a dividend for him in voter enthusiasm, particularly among the Millennial generation where support for marriage equality is sky-high. These voters have been a worry for the Obama campaign due to apparent lack of engagement with this year’s contest. A generation-defining issue like marriage equality, with Obama’s opponent holding down the Old Guard position, may be just the thing to get these voters out there and active in the run-up to November.
So don’t believe the hype. Obama’s pronouncement is not a game-changer for his opponent and might even, at the margin, help Obama rather than hurt him. And here’s what’s most important: It was just the right thing to do and history will judge him—and his opponent—on that basis.
Ruy Teixeira is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and editor of America’s New Swing Region: Changing Politics and Demographics in the Mountain West.