Gay Marriage in the Swing States: Where Will Obama’s ‘Evolution’ Matter?

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President Barack Obama speaks at Washington-Lee High School May 4, 2012 in Arlington, Virginia.

The electoral risks of President Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage are difficult to game out. The positive national trend line in support of the concept is apparent, but its slope is gradual, and many assessments of the politics of same-sex unions paint an incomplete picture. Polling tends to overstate support for gay marriage because people conceal their biases, and the results of recent ballot initiatives are imperfect tools for understanding how the public might respond to the issue in a high-turnout election. Considering this muddled picture and the fact that gay marriage is likely to have a marginal effect in a campaign dominated by economic concerns, it’s best to pinpoint the exact slice of America where Obama’s new position could have an effect.

Demographically, the divides on gay marriage are quite simple: most young voters support it, while older voters oppose it by wide margins; those with a college education are more likely to back it, while blue collar workers are less likely; and Evangelicals, who already by and large vote Republican, are its most motivated foes. There are some caveats relating to race, but for the most part they don’t apply to 2012′s general election. It’s difficult to believe that churchgoing blacks, who oppose gay marriage in higher percentages than other Democratic constituencies, would seek to deny the first black President a second term solely because of his decision to revert to a gay-marriage stance he held previously. And while Latino voters are socially conservative on many issues, polling doesn’t bear out the notion that they side against gay marriage dramatically more than the U.S. population as a whole does.

So where, if anywhere, is Obama vulnerable? Here’s a look at some relevant information from swing states, ranked in descending order of how much trouble they could pose to the President’s re-election prospects:

North Carolina

  • Existing policy: A referendum on Tuesday, May 8, approved by a 61%-39% vote a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, civil unions and government benefits.
  • Relevant polling: The last polls before the ballot test found opposition to gay marriage at 55% vs. support for it at 39%, which may better reflect sentiment in a higher-turnout scenario.
  • Obama’s 2008 margin of victory: 1 point.
  • Key demographics: Significant Evangelical portion of the state; significant black population.

Florida

  • Existing policy: A 62% majority banned gay marriage in a 2008 referendum.
  • Relevant polling: Last fall, a 48% plurality said gay marriage should be illegal, vs. 37% who disagreed.
  • Obama’s 2008 margin of victory: 3 points.
  • Key demographics: The state with the highest proportion of seniors in the country, Florida also has a sizable Latino population composed largely of conservative Cubans.

Ohio

  • Existing policy: A 2004 referendum outlawed gay marriage by a 62%-38% vote.
  • Relevant polling: 52% oppose gay marriage, while 38% support it, according to a forthcoming survey from Public Policy Polling.
  • Obama’s 2008 margin of victory: 4 points.
  • Key demographics: Large number of white blue-collar voters; older population.

Iowa

  • Existing policy: Gay marriage has been allowed since the state supreme court struck down a ban in 2009.
  • Relevant polling: A February 2012 survey found 36% opposed the court’s decision, 30% favored it and 33% didn’t care.
  • Obama’s 2008 margin of victory: 10 points.
  • Key demographics: Fourth highest proportion of seniors in the country; sizable Evangelical population.
  • Other information: Existing infrastructure from judicial recall efforts to turn out voters against gay marriage.

Nevada

  • Existing policy: In a 2002 referendum, two-thirds of Nevadans voted to outlaw gay marriage.
  • Relevant polling: An August 2011 survey found a 45%-44% split on gay marriage.
  • Obama’s 2008 margin of victory: 12 points.
  • Key demographics: Relatively small elderly population; low percentage of adults of with college degrees.

New Mexico

  • Existing policy: None.
  • Relevant polling: A December 2011 survey found New Mexicans split 45%-43% on whether gay marriage should be legal.
  • Obama’s 2008 margin of victory: 15 points.
  • Key demographics:  Smaller-than-average elderly population; small portion of adults with college degrees.

Colorado

  • Existing policy: Gay marriage in Colorado was banned by referendum in 2006 by a 55%-45% vote.
  • Relevant polling: Currently in a pitched battle over same-sex civil unions, Coloradans supported them 62%-32% in an April 2012 survey.
  • Obama’s 2008 margin of victory: 9 points.
  • Key demographics: A younger state (48th in senior population, according to the 2000 Census), with a high proportion of college graduates.

New Hampshire

  • Existing policy: Legislature allowed gay marriage in 2009. The Republican-controlled House overwhelmingly voted down a repeal effort in March 2012.
  • Relevant polling: An October 2011 survey found 50% opposed to repealing gay marriage, while 27% supported it.
  • Obama’s 2008 margin of victory: 9 points.
  • Key demographics: Relatively high percentage of college graduates.

Pennsylvania

  • Existing policy: Statehouse outlawed gay marriage by enormous margins in 1996.
  • Relevant polling: A March 2012 survey found that 50% oppose gay marriage and 38% support it.
  • Obama’s 2008 margin of victory: 11 points.
  • Key demographics:  The second highest elderly population (behind Florida); large number of white blue-collar voters.

Virginia

  • Existing policy:  Gay marriage was banned by a 57% majority at the ballot box in 2006.
  • Relevant polling: A May 2011 survey found narrowing opposition to same-sex unions, with 47% against gay marriage and 43% in favor.
  • Obama’s 2008 margin of victory: 7 points.
  • Key demographics: Relatively low percentage of population over age 65; high rate of college education among Virginians.

Wisconsin

  • Existing policy: On the ballot in 2006, gay marriage was banned by a 59%-41% vote.
  • Relevant polling: A June 2011 survey found that 46% oppose gay marriage and 42% support it.
  • Obama’s 2008 margin of victory: 13 points.
  • Key demographics: None.

Taken in sum, the closely divided split on gay marriage — even in states that have banned it — combined with the fact that there won’t be many voters motivated solely by this issue in November suggests that the effect of Obama’s new position will be limited, with only the slimmest chance at swinging the closest state contests. That’s what Obama is counting on.

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