Media Gloats that Marriage Decision “Hurts Democrats”

by Paul Hogarth on May 19, 2008

Champagne bottles in the Castro had barely popped before the press started making dire predictions that the Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality will give Democrats a bad hangover in November. Relying on the myth that John Kerry lost in 2004 because of this issue, the SF Chronicle proclaimed the decision “may help Republicans” by galvanizing the right-wing base. But there is no evidence that the 13 anti-gay marriage amendments that year clinched the election for George Bush. Moreover, such initiatives lost their potency in 2006 – a year when the Democrats took back Congress. California public opinion has changed on marriage equality since voters passed Proposition 22 in March 2000, and Barack Obama’s campaign will bring young voters out in droves. And unlike Bush, Republican John McCain is not likely to make it an issue.

Even if the Supreme Court had gone the other way, California would still have to deal with an extreme-right wing marriage amendment on the November ballot. Advocates have collected 1.1 million signatures – and pledge to spend millions of dollars, which all but guaranteed that a fight was on our hands this year. The Court decision may have given them a boost to shock their troops, but they were already mobilized to pass this before – since the state legislature had passed marriage equality twice in the last three years.

And the demographics in California are changing. Right-wing opponents argue that “the people” spoke in March 2000 – when 61% of the electorate passed Proposition 22, which prohibited the state from recognizing out-of-state gay marriages. But that happened in an extremely low-turnout primary election where the Democratic presidential nominee was a foregone conclusion – while Republicans were still duking it out. It was a catastrophic election for progressives, as Prop 22 was not the only bad initiative to pass. The median age of that electorate was fifty – while exit polls showed Prop 22 losing badly among young voters.

Eight years later, Californians are roughly split on marriage equality (a new poll this week shows it at 46-46.) Interestingly, that’s about where Massachusetts was in May 2004 – when the state started marrying gay and lesbian couples. After voters saw that the sky didn’t fall on them, it became a non-issue and a poll in early 2005 had it way ahead. Over the next six months, as people in Fresno and Bakersfield start seeing their neighbors get married – rather than a bunch of colorful queers they’ve never met descending on Sodom By the Bay – attitudes will evolve.

With all the fears that the Court decision will ignite the right wing to turn out in droves to pass the amendment, marriage equality supporters are just as likely to come out and oppose it. Barack Obama’s campaign has inspired young people across the country to get involved in the political process. In November, Californians who are motivated to come out for Obama will likely support marriage equality. Obama has publicly opposed California’s amendment, which will help provide guidance to his many supporters.

But even if defeating the amendment is winnable, wouldn’t bringing back gay marriage in the spotlight hurt Obama’s chances against John McCain – if not in California, then in other states that have a less prominent gay population?

Not necessarily. Bush certainly won re-election in 2004 because evangelical Christians were mobilized – but there was no difference in turnout between states that had anti-gay marriage amendments with those that did. And while Bush made his support for the Federal Marriage Amendment a centerpiece of his campaign, Republican John McCain opposes changing the Constitution. If anything, the issue may highlight the problem that McCain has with his party’s base – who already lack the enthusiasm among Democrats.

But 2004 was a long time ago – and amending the Constitution to deny marriage rights is gradually losing potency. In 2006, seven out of eight states passed an anti-gay marriage amendment – but the margin of victory was much lower than just two years earlier. It barely passed in South Dakota and Colorado, and Arizona became the first state to reject such an initiative. By 2006, voters had moved on to more important issues – and Democrats took back control of Congress.

With the media gloating about how the Supreme Court decision could “shift dynamics” in 2008, even liberal activists started worrying yesterday that now was “not the right time” to pass marriage equality. But there will always be an election every two years – and a presidential election every four years – so it’s never clear when IS the “right time.” One of Barack Obama’s many strengths – as opposed to prior presidential candidates like John Kerry – is that he comes off as a strong leader with appeal that transcends ideology. Gay marriage may be a liability if we had a different nominee, but it’s not likely to be a major concern this time.

And as a gay man and a progressive Democrat, I’m tired of always being afraid.

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