By Lisa Keen
A pollster opined last week that the California Supreme Court’s decision on gay marriage will help Republican John McCain and hurt Democrat Barack Obama.
“By overturning a ban on gay marriage that was approved by 61 percent of California voters,” wrote Peter Brown of Quinnipiac University Polling Institute May 19, “the judges have helped revive an emotional issue that seems likely to work to Sen. McCain’s benefit and to Sen. Barack Obama’s detriment.”
However California voters approved a ban to recognize same-sex marriages from other states eight years ago. For the last four of those years, the nation has witnessed the reality of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts with no noticeable threat to the survival of civilization. Times change, and so does public opinion.
The California ban on issuing marriage licenses to in-state couples was legislative but three years ago. And during the past three years, the California legislature has twice approved legislation to recognize same-sex marriage. Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the legislation twice, but now says he won’t support the ballot measure to overturn last week’s decision.
And, interestingly, the Republican Party’s draft platform on domestic issues, publicized May 14, makes no mention of gay marriage or other controversial issues. Instead, it focuses on such bread and butter matters as lower gas prices, health care insurance, reducing college tuition and improving literacy. In fact, it reads more like a Democratic Party agenda and that’s a big change from 2004. Back then the Republican domestic platform harangued against “activist judges…redefining the institution of marriage” and proposed limiting the jurisdiction of federal courts over the Defense of Marriage Act that bans federal recognition of same-sex marriage. It also called for amending the federal constitution to explicitly ban gay marriage nationwide, a proposal generally rejected by McCain.
U.S. Rep. Kay Granger of Texas, who is in charge of writing the Republican party platform for 2008, told Congressional Quarterly the party has decided to focus on where families are now, “not where you want them to be.”
Where families are now is an interesting place. A Gallup Poll of 1,017 adults nationwide conducted May 8 to 11 – just four days before the release of the California decision — found that 56 percent said same-sex relationships should not be recognized by law but only 48 percent would favor a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. That’s an all-time high.
Asked how important a candidate’s position on the issue is in deciding for whom to vote, 49 percent said it was “one of many factors,” 33 percent said it was “not a major issue,” 16 percent said the candidate “must share” their views, and 2 percent were “unsure.” That hasn’t changed much since Gallup first asked the question during the 2004 presidential race.
In California however, attitudes have steadily improved. According to an independent report released last year by the Field Research Corporation, Californians were more evenly divided. And a look at surveys over the course of 22 years found that, in California, support for same-sex marriage was growing at a faster pace than anywhere else in the country. Thirty percent supported it in 1985, 38 percent in 1997, and 43 percent in 2003-6.
The turnout question
There is no reason emerging to suggest African American voters in California (who make up about nine percent of the vote) – 72 percent of whom are registered Democrats — are going to vote for McCain solely because his opposition to gay marriage is marginally stronger than Obama’s. But if African Americans in California are overwhelmingly against gay marriage, there is a reason to believe they’ll affect the outcome of the voting on the anti-gay marriage measure because they are expected to turn out in November with the same full force they turned out in February to vote for Obama.
And it is fair to expect that the marriage decision will inspire a greater conservative turnout to the polls in California than will McCain himself. While they might turn out to vote against gay marriage, they will likely cast their vote for McCain while they’re at it.
What will those turn outs be? In the California primary Feb. 5, McCain drew only 1.2 million voters to the polls; Obama drew 2.1 million winning second place in the Democratic primary (where 2.6 million Californians voted for Clinton).
McCain has been more moderate on gay marriage than the Republican Party’s most conservative wing would like. While he supported a constitutional amendment ban in Arizona (which failed), he has opposed an amendment to the federal constitution. He has suggested he might support the federal amendment, under some as yet unidentified circumstance.
After the California marriage decision was released May 15, the McCain campaign put out a statement saying that the candidate “supports the right of the people of California to recognize marriage as a unique institution sanctioning the union between a man and a woman, just as he did in his home state of Arizona.”
“John McCain doesn’t believe judges should be making these decisions,” said the statement.
The Obama camp, by comparison, said simply that Obama “respects the decision of the California Supreme Court and continues to believe that states should make their own decisions when it comes to the issue of marriage.” And Hillary Clinton’s campaign restated her position that she supports civil unions.
Pam Spaulding, a lesbian political commentator called all three responses a “punt.”
“Good lord, this ‘leave it to the states’ bullsh*t is so tired,” wrote Spaulding on her blog, Pam’s House Blend. “Clinton and Obama are lawyers, for god’s sake. They know the precedent of Loving v. Virginia on this….”
They know the precedent of the 2004 presidential campaign, too, or at least what former President Bill Clinton claimed it was. Clinton notoriously blamed the 2003 Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decision in Goodridge as “overwhelming factor in the defeat of John Kerry.”
“With one decision of one [state] supreme court,” said Clinton, speaking to a college audience in Utica, New York, in November 2004, “all of the sudden we have a constitutional amendment designed, I think, to whip people up, to inflame them, make them stop thinking about other issues.”
But that was 2004, when gas prices were hitting a “new record high” of $1.75 – not $4, as they are now. That was before the subprime mortgage crisis triggered a soaring number of foreclosures, and the U.S. economy slid into what many economists have now labeled a recession. And, the U.S. was only in its first year of combat in Iraq, not its fifth.
Same-sex marriage may still carry some weight on voters’ minds, but in 2008, it will have a lot of competition to be the “overwhelming factor” that defeats any candidate.