Obama backs gay marriage: Political impact

2012-05-10 10:28
New York - US President Barack Obama declared his personal support for the right of homosexual couples to get married on Wednesday, which naturally produced cries from the conservative media and adulation from the liberal outlets. In particular, supporters of civil rights for LGBT folks applauded the president on taking this stance "in spite of the political impact".
Just what is the political impact?

Many have said that Obama did not need to support same-sex marriage. It's not a popular idea. Just yesterday North Carolina joined every other southern state in agreeing to a constitutional amendment banning recognition of any relationship that isn't one woman and one man.

Only seven states permit full gay marriage, which could move to ten by November. Thirty states prohibit it. So what was the benefit?

Well, gay marriage has huge support among some communities in New York and California, among others. These two states have many people with lots of money ready to donate, and Obama's war chest will be in healthier shape after this announcement. Money makes a huge difference in US elections.
Polls - mixed messages

Let's also clear up a misconception; although congressional Democrats have most recently led the fight for civil rights progression in the USA, it is not a party of pinko liberals. There are many conservative Democrat voters.

Two prominent socially conservative demographics that backed Obama in huge numbers in the 2008 election were black and Hispanic voters, both of which poll a majority against recognising same-sex marriage.

According to a Washington Post/ABC poll 53% of black voters oppose gay marriage while 42% support it. In November last year, a poll by Latino Decisions for Univision showed that only 43% of Hispanic voters believe in same-sex marriage, but another 13% believe in civil unions. White voters back the measure 53% to 43%. Evangelical voters, who tend to vote Republican anyway, are staunchly against the measure, but are somewhat countered by young people, 59% of whom back same-sex marriage.  Independents, the election deciders, favour gay marriage 57% to 40%.

While socially conservative swing states such as Ohio and North Carolina could be edged to presumptive Republican candidate Mitt Romney's way on this particular topic, the independent suburbanites could help Obama with Virginia and in the southwest.


Obama did one spectacularly clever thing. He did not back a national law to entrench same-sex marriage rights; what he explicitly said was that he personally backed these rights, but that it was up to states to decide. This means that states are perfectly entitled to make their own decisions and enact laws against gay marriage.

This is a favourite conservative line of argument for just about any federally decided issue and will be awfully hard to argue against in a predictable backlash to the president's newly announced point of view.

Republicans have used this as a wedge issue before (particularly in the defeat of John Kerry in 2004) but keeping things at the state level makes it much harder to be definitively against Obama's position.

For example, this is Mitt Romney's one and only defence of the healthcare law he enacted in Massachusetts when he was governor: That it applied to his state alone. It is all he has to say when attacking virtually the exact same plan executed nationally by the Obama administration.

This also indicates Obama has no intention of federally enacting his new stance if he wins the election in November, which should sate some of the folks readying the torches and pickaxes.


While the aforementioned polls look pretty even for the president in terms of intention, what is harder to quantify is how many people will turn out to vote. An issue like gay marriage, if Obama opponents can whip up enough rage, could bring more conservatives out to vote in November, which would not suit the president.

It would be the converse of one of the major reasons he beat John McCain in 2008 - turnout by his supporters dwarfed Republican voters. It is also a lot of the reason referendums limiting gay rights expansion have passed historically - conservative opponents have organised and voted en masse.

 Although this election will remain about the economy there are a fair number of voters, including Democrats, who take social issues very seriously and Obama runs the risk of losing their vote.

While it is doubtful that a significant number of voters will cross the aisle and vote for Republicans, it is possible they will not vote in protest. If Mitt Romney or Barack Obama can differentiate themselves from one another on the economy, however, I can't see an election-swinging bloc changing the election on the president's endorsement of gay marriage - it's an issue one can worry about when there's food on the table.
This does suit Mitt Romney in some respects, most notably that he is most certainly the conservative in the race. While Romney has taken flak for being too moderate, this issue will most likely unite his base around him.

The hardcore conservatives do not want a man in the White House who is even considering endorsing equal marriage rights, let alone publicly saying them on television. By continuing the line that marriage is between one man and one woman, and that he doesn't even support civil unions, Romney looks a hell of a lot more conservative now.

The Future

This also marks the last election on which the Democrats can no longer stand in any place that is not for gay marriage – enough constituencies will simply not allow it.

In fact, some of the names expected to be in the running for the Democrat nomination in 2016 are folks like the governors of New York and Maryland, Andrew Cuomo and Martin O'Malley respectively, who have both signed legislation permitting homosexual couples to marry. 

So what do you actually mean?

This bold and unprecedented statement makes forecasting difficult, but I don't think Obama is going to tank an election on it - and there is the possibility of a small net gain.

I won't be betting any money, though.

Read more on:    barack obama  |  simon williamson  |  mitt romney  |  us  |  gay rights  |  us elections 2012

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