For those who wonder why President Obama won’t fully embrace same-sex marriage, despite relentless pressure from within his own party to do so, Tuesday night’s landslide passage of a same-sex marriage ban in North Carolina offered a reminder.
TPM has reported that the President’s current positioning is a challenge for his campaign on the messaging front. On the one hand, the President and his team have to maintain the strong support of the LGBT community, a crucial voting bloc for Democrats. But on the other, gay marriage is simply not a political winner electorally, and especially not in the swing states needed to win a second term.
Here’s the breakdown of why endorsing gay marriage just doesn’t add up politically.
Gay Marriage Has (Almost) Never Won A Statewide Vote
Referendum votes to affirmatively legalize gay marriage have uniformly failed over the last decade, North Carolina only being the latest example. Before that it was Maine, where the legislature passed a law legalizing same-sex marriage which was signed by then Gov. John Baldacci (D-ME), then challenged through the Citizen’s Veto process, in which opponents gathered enough signatures to put it to a statewide vote. Polls showed the measure in a dead heat a few weeks before the vote, until the opponents of same sex marriage seemed to break through at the end, as the new law when down 53 percent to 47 percent.
In now 32 cases, states have voted to amend their constitutions banning same sex marriage. The biggest battle in recent memory was the bruising battle over Proposition 8 in California, which passed 52 percent to 48 percent, and has since been struck down by the courts and is making its way through the appeals process. The one outlier is the 2006 vote in Arizona, when a narrow 51 percent 48 percent majority struck down a ban on gay marriage. Only two years later, the state voted to instate the ban.
Legalized same-sex marriage exists in eight states and the District of Columbia, but in the case of Maryland and Washington state, opponents have forced referendums.
In total, the electoral results are simply one-sided — in any case where a state has legalized gay marriage, it was done through the legislative process or the state courts. In terms of presidential politics, the most essential swing states — Ohio, Virginia, Colorado, Florida — have all banned gay marriage. And North Carolina, also a pick up target for President Obama, just did the same.
General Election Voters Aren’t Concerned With Gay Marriage, National Polling Is Split At Best
As you may have heard, the 2012 cycle is about the economy. National security, health care, and the role of government more generally will also figure. On the other hand, “policies toward gays and lesbians” ranked last in CNN polls which asked Americans about their priorities in December of 2011 and late March of 2012.
Advocates of legalizing same sex-marriage also point to the changing national views on the subject — a recent Pew poll showed a 47 percent plurality of Americans now support it, against 43 opposed, which follows other polling that has seen opposition decline over the last 10 years.
But as noted above, national polls showing support simply run contrary to the votes that have taken place on the issue over the years. The trend is very clear — Americans are becoming more supportive of same-sex marriage every year, and even more votes on the issue in blue states may provide the tipping point (Maine will have another referendum vote on legalizing it, Maryland and Washington will vote on the challenges to their new laws).
And perhaps most damaging electorally is where the votes are situated. A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed gay marriage supported by two-thirds of Democrats, but only 46 percent of independents. Essentially, Dems are asking Obama to endorse something that they are already for, at the cost of possibly losing votes in the middle.
The President Has No Power On Marriage
The issue itself is a classic exploration of how participation in government at different levels can sometimes be in conflict. In the Maine example, a majority of Democratic legislators in both the state House and Senate were elected fully supporting same-sex marriage in their campaigns, and voted for it when in office. Individual voters made their choice of candidate, and the candidates did what they said they would do.
Yet when it came to a referendum vote on the issue, Maine voters rejected gay marriage, in light of the fact that they had elected a legislature with plans to do so. Same-sex marriage advocates say that this is exactly why public votes should be take on questions of civil rights, that it would be a decision left to policymakers. Proponents of gay marriage would likely say this bolsters the argument that President Obama should endorse it — it could be easily said that voters make a decision on a number of factors, and with 2012 nearly all about the economy it may not make a difference, the argument would go.
However, there’s a much stronger counter-argument — the office of the President has literally no power to deal with this issue, as it is completely decided by the states. Proponents argue that strong leadership from the bully pulpit on a signature civil rights issue isn’t just the right thing to do, but would serve as a major boost. But the political question for President Obama is why he would endorse a policy that all of the major swing states have rejected when his position on the matter is practically irrelevant.
The bottom line is that same-sex marriage advocates are asking President Obama, who has been very supportive of other LGBT issues, to endorse a policy that remains unsupported as a single issue, low on the priority list for American voters, and something he can only affect from the sidelines. Which is why endorsing gay marriage doesn’t make sense for Obama, despite pressure for him to do so.
Kyle is the Editor of TPM Media’s PollTracker. He graduated from Beloit College (WI) and began working in politics before getting an M.A. in magazine journalism from New York University, where he interned at TPM and the website of The New Yorker.