All Change – Gay Marriage

President Obama has now arrived at his third, and possibly final, position on the subject of gay marriage. He was against it; then his position was ‘evolving’; now he is in favour of it. The substantive change may be less than the rhetorical. His position of being against gay marriage was always limited to saying that he was against it, without actually doing anything about it. His position of ‘evolving’ was much less clear. It was interpreted by most (on both sides) as meaning that he was secretly in favour, but planning to hide that fact until after the election. If taken at face value it was an insulting assertion that he believed his position was in need of consideration, but he could not find the time to commit to that. His third position is likely to be that he now rhetorically supports same sex marriage, but still plans to do little about it.

According to a New York Times poll, voters, by a margin of 67% to 24%, think that the President’s change of position is politically opportunistic. This is problem for the President – and possibly a bigger problem than on the substantive issue. It is undoubtedly the case that the Obama campaign was planning to portray Mitt Romney as an unprincipled flip-flopper. It’s probably still the plan, but if polls suggest that more people have that view of Obama than of Romney, the plan may have to change.

On the substantive issue, the President’s position may be unpopular, though less so than it was even a year or two ago. (This, by the way, is one reason for supposing that those who believe he is being opportunist may be wrong). Polls suggest that the heavy margins against gay marriage have disappeared and the issue is now finely balanced. However, it remains the case that every single popular vote on the question has gone against. While many such plebiscites have been in socially conservative states, Oregon and California have also voted against such recognition. In California’s case, twice. Opinion polls may overestimate support for same sex marriage.

If – as polls suggest – the US is now evenly divided on gay marriage, there are probably some states where a majority favors the idea. But are they swing states or are they states which are already firmly in the Democratic column? Common Sense suspects that New Hampshire and Oregon (despite its previous vote) might well vote in favor, though both were very tightly contested in 2000 and 2004. But other states which voted Democratic in 2008 – including Ohio, Florida, Virginia and Indiana – would probably oppose gay marriage. This is to say nothing of North Carolina, which voted for Obama in 2008, but was against gay marriage by more than 20 points this month.

The issue will move few voters. Many of those firmly opposed to the idea are already against the President and those who support it are mostly supporting him. While African-Americans have been among those most staunchly opposing gay marriage this is a group which is very unlikely to abandon the President – though they might have abandoned Hillary Clinton in the same circumstances. It may be that the, probably unfair, assumption of opportunism will hurt him more than the issue itself. That would be a shame. He is right on the issue, and probably sincere about it.


Article provided by Quentin Langley
Lecturer in PR and Political Communications,
School of Journalism, Cardiff University

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