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Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Political Impact of Obama's Same-Sex Marriage Announcement

Everyone is asking, and some are speculating, about the political impact of President Barack Obama’s decision to publicly state his personal support for legal same-sex marriage. There is no doubt that Obama’s campaign team spent long hours contemplating the political ramifications of his decision. These discussions almost certainly included an analysis of available polling data. His team's decision that Obama should go ahead with his announcement suggests that in their opinion, on a net-net basis, the potential political benefits of the announcement outweighed the potential political harm.

We know that values issues, like same-sex marriage, are low on an overall priority list for the average American. We just finished our May update wherein we ask Americans to name the most important problem facing the country. Two-thirds mentioned some aspect of the economy. Less than 1% specifically mentioned issues relating to gay rights or gay marriage. Even when we asked Americans in the same poll to tell us what worries them about the state of moral values in this country, very few mention gay issues.

From a big picture perspective, the economy rules. The direction of the economy in the next four months is going to have a much greater impact on the outcome of the election than Obama’s public announcement that he supports legalizing same-sex marriage.

It’s also fair to say that, although this issue dominates news coverage today and tomorrow, it will fade away in the weeks to come.

American presidential politics today is divided along several important fault lines. One of these is values. As my colleagues Jeff Jones and Lydia Saad and I just reviewed, Americans’ religiousness is one of the most important predictors of their partisanship and vote for president -- particularly among white voters. Highly religious and moderately religious white Americans support Romney. Nonreligious white Americans swing totally around and support Obama. Support for legal same-sex marriage follows these same lines. In other words, Americans' religiousness predicts both their politics and their position on same-sex marriage.

Thus, Obama’s public support for legal same-sex marriage will serve to reinforce this pre-existing religious/values divide in American politics. Religious Americans will most likely be reinforced in their support for the Republican presidential candidate -- Mitt Romney. Nonreligious Americans will either be unaffected, or for some, reinforced, in their support for the Democratic candidate -- Barack Obama.

Romney did not fare well with highly religious white Republican voters in the GOP primaries this year. Rick Santorum in our polls, and in exit polling, disproportionately claimed the allegiance of this voting group. These voters swung their support to Romney after he clinched the Republican nomination.  But it is not clear how passionate or enthusiastic that support has been. It is possible that the Obama announcement will serve to reinforce the motivation, passion, and enthusiasm for the Romney campaign among highly religious white voters.

Core, liberal supporters of Obama will be reinforced in their support for the president. But. There is a fascinating exception to this -- black voters, who suffer cross-pressures on moral values issues. Blacks’ support for Obama is, in general, higher than any other group we measure -- 90% say they will vote for Obama in our latest analysis. Blacks, however, do not fall in line with traditional Democrats on this issue of same-sex marriage. I aggregated our last three May Values polls (2010, 2011, and 2012) together to get a larger sample size of black respondents. Overall, 49% of Americans in these three polls said they supported legal same-sex marriage. Overall, 41% of blacks agreed. That puts blacks significantly closer to Republicans’ attitudes on this issue than to Democrats’. This reflects the fact that blacks are the most religious of any major race or ethnic group in America.

It’s highly unlikely that anything will change this vote predilection, including Obama’s announcement. It is possible that Obama’s public stance could, at least in theory, have the impact of reducing black voter motivation and turnout next November. But probably not too possible. Since it can be assumed that most blacks already knew Obama’s general position on this issue, it’s not likely that the announcement will have a material change on anything to do with black voting patterns. But we will have to wait and see.

The other possible impact of Wednesday's announcement could derive from the circumstances of the announcement per se.  Obama clearly made the announcement in response to the focus on the issue that emanated from Vice President Joe Biden's statement on Meet the Press on Sunday that he supported legal same-sex marriage. The question here is whether voters will see Obama's decision to follow suit on Wednesday as a courageous act of leadership and dedication to personal convictions, or as a cave in to political demands. Right now, Obama beats Romney on the dimension of being a strong and decisive leader.  Again, we will have to wait and see how this plays out in the minds of American voters.


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