By Lisa Keen
There was at least one huge difference between the presidential voting results this week and those of November 2000: This time around, many pundits are pointing at gay marriage as a reason why the Republican party has done so well. And their unspoken message is that Democrats may need to reassess where they stand on the issue.
U.S. Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic nominee, conceded the election to President Bush, even though the officially counted results had not yet given Bush a clear victory in the electoral college. But long before Kerry’s concession, political commentators were already discussing the impact gay marriage had on the election.
Ironically, Bush and Kerry held nearly identical views on same-sex marriage, especially during the last week, when President Bush said he supported civil unions. By then, both candidates opposed same-sex marriage and supported civil unions. The only difference in their positions was that Bush supported an amendment to the federal constitution to ban gay marriages, while Kerry supported amendments to state constitutions.
But the Bush campaign succeeded in leveraging public sentiment against gay marriage, particularly among the nation’s more conservative voters.
According to exit polls conducted by a coalition of major media outlets, 79 percent of those who identified “moral values” as their top issue voted for Bush, while only 18 percent voted for Kerry. And, in a result that surprised many pundits, “moral issues” was identified as the “most important issue” to the largest percentage of voters. Twenty-two percent of voters said moral issues were the most important issue, compared to 20 percent for the “economy/jobs,” 19 percent for “terrorism,” 15 percent for “Iraq,” 8 percent for “health care,” 5 percent “taxes,” and 4 percent “education.”
Even as news organizations were fretting in the middle of the night over whether to put certain states – such as Michigan, Florida, and Wisconsin – in the Republican or Democratic columns, political pundits, both liberal and conservative, were pondering the role of “moral issues” in the race.
Political commentator David Gergen, who worked for both President Reagan and President Clinton, suggested that sentiment against gay marriage was “underneath” the numbers. Political talk show host Larry King said he thought gay marriage was illustrative of a “large cultural division” among voters.
“God, guns, and gays,” said CNN Crossfire co-host Paul Begala, in summing up voter sentiment. Begala and the program’s other liberal representative, James Carville, both seemed to concede that the Democratic party’s open support for equal rights for gay people cost it a significant number of votes.
“If you combine Iraq and the war on terrorism together, that’s the most important issue,” said Patrick Guerriero, executive director of Log Cabin Republicans, a national gay Republican group. “But clearly cultural issues were used effectively” by the Bush campaign, said Guerriero.
U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) said the focus on “moral issues” and gay marriage in the analysis of the election is “troubling.”
“It’s going to be a problem,” said Frank. “People are going to say that some of this gay stuff is part of the problem” for Democratic presidential candidates. Frank said he believes gay marriage became a focus for many voters because of the tremendous media blitz that followed early this year when San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsome ordered the city to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, despite a state law that seemed to prohibit it. After Newsome took his action, a number of other towns and cities around the country followed suit.
“I think we should have defended what we had in Massachusetts,” said Frank, referring to the decision of the Massachusetts supreme court that found the state constitution required that gay couples be able to obtain marriage licenses. “We should have defended Massachusetts and showed people that their fears are ridiculous. Newsome playing to gay voters in San Francisco was not helpful. It’s important for us to be more strategic in where and we pick our fights and take into account how the opposition will use it.”
Democratic gay activist Jeff Soref said he thinks it’s important gays not allow themselves to be scapegoated for Kerry’s loss.
“This was not a national referendum on gay marriage,” said Soref, noting that collectively, most voters identified the economy, terrorism, and other issues besides “moral values” as their most important concern.
“Moral values doesn’t mean us,” said Hilary Rosen, a longtime Democratic gay activist who heads up the Human Rights Campaign’s marriage project. “The same exit poll showed almost 62 percent favor some legal recognition of gay relationships.”
Asked about their support for legal recognition of same-sex relationships, 36 percent of voters wanted “no legal recognition” of gay relationships, 35 percent supported civil unions, and 26 percent supported same-sex marriages.
That, said Guerriero, was the “one ripple of good news” – that nearly two-thirds of Americans supported either civil unions or marriage for gay couples.
“Four years ago,” he said, “we would have been ecstatic at those numbers.”
As they did in 2000, the exit polls in 2004 found that about four percent of voters were willing to identify as gay to surveyors as they exited the voting booth Tuesday or through phone calls made randomly in 13 states just prior to Nov. 2. The polling was done by independent polling firms commissioned by several major media organizations: CNN, CBS, ABC, Fox, NBC, and the Washington Post. The surveys reach 13,047 voters.
One difference between the 2004 and 2000 exit polling is that 78 percent of those gay voters said they supported the Democrat this year, compared to 70 percent in 2000. Bush retained most of his support among gay voters, dropping only slightly from 25 percent of gay voters in 2000 to 23 percent this year. Support for independent candidate Ralph Nader dropped more dramatically among gays from four percent in 2000 to zero percent in 2004.
Frank said he was “encouraged that people finally caught on to Nader’s indifference to GLBT issues.”
“I’m disappointed,” said Frank, “that so many stuck with Bush.” Given that more voters in general supported Bush this time around, noted Frank, the two percent drop in Bush’s support among gay voters might be interpreted as “some improvement.”
But Log Cabin’s Guerriero said he believes Bush did lose considerable gay support because of his use of gay marriage to rally conservative voters to the polls.
“If the president had not waged a fight for the constitutional amendment,” said Guerriero, “his number would have been 35 to 40 percent” of gay voters.
By Lisa Keen