Will gay marriage still work as a Republican wedge issue?

Salon's experts think the issue that helped George Bush win reelection in 2004 may have lost its electoral magic. But look for it to resurface in the 2012 GOP primaries.

Published April 20, 2009 10:56AM (EDT)

In 2004, gay marriage referendums littered state ballots and were used by Republicans to motivate social conservatives to turn out and vote for George W. Bush. A gay marriage referendum may have helped Bush win Ohio and reelection. Four years later, even though Barack Obama won California's popular vote by landslide numbers, state voters passed Proposition 8, limiting marriage to heterosexual couples. This surprise from a socially liberal state was followed this month by what some think is an even more surprising decision by the Iowa Supreme Court to void the Hawkeye State's gay marriage ban. Then, four days later, the Vermont Legislature overrode the governor's veto in order to authorize gay marriage. This past Thursday, New York Gov. David Paterson introduced a same-sex marriage bill; on Friday, John McCain's campaign manager suggested the GOP should back gay marriage. As both a policy issue and a political hot potato, gay marriage is back in the news. Can opposition to gay marriage still help the Republicans on Election Day, or have we reached a tipping point? Salon asked three guests to helps us weigh what is at stake in the ongoing battle to define marriage in America.

Jay Barth is an associate professor of politics at Hendrix College in Arkansas who writes extensively on campaigns, elections and Southern politics, as well as on gay and lesbian politics. Next year Barth will be making his first bid for elected office as a candidate for the Arkansas state Senate. Polling expert Anna Greenberg is senior vice president of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner. Greenberg advises Democratic candidates and campaigns, advocacy organizations and foundations across the United States. Jonathan Rauch is a senior writer and columnist for National Journal magazine and a correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly. A guest scholar at the Brookings Institution, Rauch's latest book is "Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America."

Tom Schaller: Let's start this conversation by going back a little bit and giving a broad overview of public support for gay marriage, say, over the last quarter century. And most especially in the wake of the November 2004 elections, which of course had those ballot measures in 11 states. Anna, if we could start with you, can you give us a sense of what the long-term trends are in terms of public support for gay marriage or civil unions? What do they look like today versus then, and how much are they moving?

Anna Greenberg: Sure. We actually don't have data going back a quarter century on the question of gay marriage because that wasn't even a question in people's consciousness until the last 15, maybe 20, years. We certainly have data going back further on questions of -- and this is very archaic language -- but whether or not homosexuals should be allowed to be able to teach your children, and then a broad range of questions in the area of discrimination and rights. And what we've seen over the course of the past 25 years, it certainly accelerated in the '90s, is pretty rapid change from a place of, I don't want to say homophobia, but certainly discomfort with the issue, and opposition, to a series of rights being granted, to a place of very broad majority support for all sort of forms of anti-discrimination and even for some kind of legal recognition of same-sex unions.

So for example, depending on the polls, depending on how the question is asked, you have anywhere from, I would say, 65 to 75 percent of people in this country now supporting some kind of legal recognition of same-sex unions. On the question of marriage, we've seen again some pretty significant movement over the past 10 years or so. The question really started getting asked most frequently in the mid-'90s, and at the time there was anywhere from 25 to 30 percent of people favoring gay marriage. That's now closer to 40 or 45 percent, depending on the poll and the way the question is asked. So while we still have majority opposition, about 55 percent disapprove of gay marriage, we're getting much closer to majority support on that question as well.

Schaller: Now let me ask Jonathan and Jay a follow-up here. I know you guys are all familiar with these historical trends. Do you think that gap between the support for civil unions and gay marriage will begin to narrow? Projecting forward, what are your expectations? Or have we plateaued? Obviously, I'm not expecting you to look into a crystal ball, but do you expect these trends to sort of continue in terms of this conversion?

Jonathan Rauch: I am a journalist, so I'm happy to look into a crystal ball and pretend I know everything. I differ slightly from Anna's analysis, but only slightly, because I think these trends are changing but really quite slowly. It's hard to change people's minds on these issues. The fundamental situation remains that roughly a third of the public -- when you ask the question the best way -- which is, give a three-way choice: gay marriage, civil unions or other recognition, or nothing at all -- you get roughly a third who support gay marriage, and roughly a third who want some other form of recognition, and roughly a third who want nothing.

Depending on how you classify that, you can say a majority supports gay unions or a majority opposes gay marriage. And this is partly generational, but the young are not as different from the rest of the country as people think. They're only 10 percentage points more in favor of gay marriage. And the result is that I think we're in for a long process of 10 or 20 years of debating and discussing the meaning of marriage in this country, where different states will do different things. And we're just a long way from a consensus.

Jay Barth: In general I would agree with Jonathan, except for one thing. I think that while younger folks are maybe not quite as pro gay marriage as some would suggest, clearly those folks who are older are emphatically most opposed to legal recognition of any sort. And so I think it is -- this is a classic case of generational replacement. And as some leave the scene, they're replenished by others, and that difference is a pretty sharp one. I do think there will be continued change, and I think it's hard to see anything that would turn those trends around, because it is so driven by generational replacement and secondly by increasing personal contact with gays and lesbians. And that seems to be the other really important variable in reshaping attitudes about all sorts of gay-related public policies.

Greenberg: I should have given this a little more context because as someone who looks at this in an academic context, the speed of change on LGBT issues is much faster than say race or gender. So, it is true I may have overstated. It is moving very, very rapidly, but relative to these other types of changes, where it took 50, 60 years to go in a different direction, the significance of the change on everything but marriage has been much, much larger. The second thing I'd say: It is the case that people under 30 do favor marriage, and it is not the case that people who are older are vastly against any type of recognition. A majority of people who are older favor some type of recognition, but it is the case that people who are older, especially senior citizens, are against marriage itself.

Schaller: The generational discussion sort of opens up a whole bunch of demographic issues. I gather that this gap between recognition and the legal sanction of marriage, obviously that's biggest the older you get, and smaller the younger you get. But would it ever disappear, even with generational replacement? Is there always going to be a gap even as these younger people become older and replace their parents and grandparents?

Rauch: Forever is a long time. But I would point out for instance that it was not until 1997 that you had a majority of Americans tell Gallup that it was OK for blacks and whites to intermarry. And it is not until 2008 when Gallup had a tied result on whether homosexuality was a moral lifestyle; the public is still divided down the middle on that. So the change may be rapid, but it's only rapid compared to earlier changes that were very slow. So I don't see in my lifetime getting to a point where same-sex marriage is completely uncontroversial. I do think we stand a pretty good shot of getting to a point where it's at least consensus uncontroversial.

Barth: And on that point, I do think that it becomes important how the change occurs. I do think this is the issue: whether that change occurs through a democratic process in the states or whether it occurs through the courts. And, I think, that and the timing of any court activity. I do think it has some implications for exactly how much consensus develops around the issue.

Schaller: Let's change to a bit of a thorny subtopic here, which is the issue of race. Race infuses so many elements of American politics, and gay marriage -- and sexual orientation issues, more broadly -- are no exception. When it came to Proposition 8, we saw about seven out of 10 blacks and about half of Latinos voted against gay marriage. What explains that? Is that a historical trend? Is it a cultural thing? Is it a religious phenomenon? Is there sort of a "black-brown versus white" gap here, a race gap on gay marriage? And is that going to persist?

Greenberg: That's a really tough question, and it was a really tough question for everybody who was involved in Prop. 8 in California, especially when those exit polls came out. I think that there's no question, on a whole range of issues, African-Americans are more socially conservative. That includes not just the marriage question; it also includes questions like abortion. And I think you can draw a pretty strong link to religiosity. African-Americans are among the most religious folks in this country and continue to be so. And many of their churches are not progressive on these issues.

I'd also argue, while there are many very good advocacy organizations that are prominent in the African-American community that are progressive on this issue, there isn't really national African-American leadership. Even if you look at what happened in California, the way various statements made by Barack Obama were actually used by the opposition, or I should say the supporters of Prop. 8. So while Barack Obama was actually against Prop. 8, the impression was given that he was for Prop. 8, and it was very powerful. And I think there needs to be a lot more work done in the LGBT community with the African-American community.

I think the question of Hispanics is actually slightly different. There's no question that there are big generational differences, and that more recent immigrants in the Hispanic community are more socially conservative, more religious, but if you look at young Hispanics, they actually look pretty different. They actually look like everybody else on these issues. I think in the long run, you're going to see Hispanics won't differ dramatically from whites on the issue of gay marriage.

Barth: On African-Americans, there is significant difference across the different gay-related public policies. Marriage really does stand out as one area where African-Americans tend to be more conservative than whites. But on the other issues, especially employment nondiscrimination, African-Americans are actually more supportive than others on that issue. I think we have to be very careful in terms of painting with too broad a brush in terms of gay- and lesbian-related public policies. There are important distinctions across these varieties of issues where gay and lesbian rights come into play.

Rauch: Just a footnote on that, I'm no expert on the demographic breakdowns, but some of what's going on here is probably the effect of education and income, which correlates to some significant extent with race and ethnicity and also correlates pretty strongly with support for same-sex marriage. And as you know, Tom, being in the business, you can slice and dice poll results all kinds of ways to show all kinds of things, but it's very hard to separate those two variables and say which is really the fundamental one.

Schaller: But one thing we have seen is the rise of evangelical Protestant Latinos as opposed to Catholic Latinos. They're split nationally. More than 60 percent of Latinos are Catholic, but a growing bloc of 20 percent is Protestant, and another 10 or 15 percent are of mixed religious identities. Is the real issue that these Latino Protestants have pushed hard against gay marriage?

Greenberg: I can't speak to that directly. I haven't seen data breaking down Hispanics as Catholics versus Protestants. But I will say this, I did a poll last year for Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, and we did an oversample of young white evangelicals, and obviously this is a community who is very hostile to gay marriage. But what was interesting was that the same generational differences that we see in the population overall, we saw in evangelicals. It turns out that the majority of young white evangelicals oppose gay marriage; [but] a majority, 57 percent, [support] some sort of legal recognition.

I think that there's an argument to be made, if you look at the evangelical community as a whole, that there are elements within it that have decided that this issue is less important to them than abortion, and it's going to be less powerful as a kind of politically mobilizing issue or a wedge issue. So some of the energy on this coming out of the religious community may be diminished over time, and they may focus more of their energy on abortion.

Schaller: Let's go to the question of wedge politics that Anna sort of alluded to. Is it as powerful an issue as abortion? Probably not. If it is a wedge issue for the GOP, is the blade of it becoming duller as people simply give it less salience? Not just because of generational replacement, but because it is less of an important issue than some of these other hot cultural, social issues? Is the best thing for supporters of gay marriage to deemphasize this issue so that it does not become as prime a discussion as it was in 2004?

Rauch: It's a wedge issue, but it's a rapidly dulling wedge issue. And the surprise for Republicans has been that you can point a wedge in two directions. Turns out using this issue turns off a lot of people, too. Those include people who don't want to be having this type of discussion about social issues, and it includes people who increasingly think that same-sex marriage belongs in the category of rights and that using this as a wedge issue is itself immoral. What looked initially to be a kind of free lunch for polarizers on the right has turned out to be a double-barreled shotgun. I think that we're going to see less use of this issue. That said, it is a fundamentally divisive issue for quite a lot of people on both sides. So I don't expect salience to drop to zero anytime soon.

Schaller: Jay, you follow Southern politics closely. I assume that its sharpness as a wedge issue differs in different parts of the country and that maybe, paradoxically, the places it plays strongest ... don't really matter that much. Either Democrats don't fare very well in the places where it's very important, or Democrats are already doing well in places where it's less powerful as a wedge issue, like the Northeast.

Barth: There definitely is significant regional variation on this issue. And obviously, the South, as you've written about, really stands out as an outlier on this and a variety of other issues involving equality. I do think it's important to also point out that the broader electoral context matters a lot. That is, in an election cycle where the economy is really dominant, an issue like this feels pretty irrelevant, and I think its impact is dulled. I think it's not accidental that 2004 was a cycle where that really did seem to have its greatest impact for a variety of reasons -- obviously, the court rulings, etc. But I think also the fact that because of the relative health of the economy, especially compared to now, it allowed those issues to really pop to the surface in a way that it could never have popped to the surface in 2008, for instance.

Rauch: Just a footnote there. One thing that's changed is, this issue is much easier to use when you have some really front-of-the-mind controversy to attach it to. And that was happening all the time in 2004 in the form of court decisions. The litigation of it is basically out of venues for state courts to order gay marriage -- though you have the Iowa court overturning the ban there. And it's pretty unlikely the U.S. Supreme Court will wade into this anytime soon. I'm a gay marriage advocate and a gay man, but I sure hope they don't. And it looks like we might go for a while without a huge triggering event, which would take a lot of the edge off this issue.

Schaller: Let me come back to that. I want to finish up this sort of partisan implication. Steve Schmidt, very prominently, recently said in a Washington Blade interview that the GOP should hold back its anti-gay rhetoric. I wonder if this is like the two-bladed sword you mentioned earlier, Jonathan. If they dial that back or certainly if they broaden their tent, they're going to lose conservatives. They may even lose some of these evangelical Latinos and blacks. But is the GOP in a bind here, that if they try to raise the salience of anti-gay measures, they're going to lose many of these swing voters they need to become a majority party again, but if they put it too much on the shelf, they're going to have an uprising among the core conservatives who vote on issues like this?

Rauch: Do I have to give a long answer, or can I just say yes?

Greenberg: I remember talking to a Republican consultant friend of mine who told me they were on the wrong side of history because it just seemed so mean. And while that sounds flip, you also have to go back to the generational difference and also think about Obama and part of what his message was about -- being forward-looking, open and being the best we can be. And there is a real danger that this sort of further marginalizes and typecasts Republicans as the mean party.

Barth: And I think that's true even in the South. I have Republican colleagues here in Arkansas who have made that comment. It just is not resonating with younger voters who are the future of their party's hopes.

Schaller: Let's go back to Jonathan's question, because he mentioned the Iowa ruling. We saw in California, when people go behind the ballot curtain, in privacy, they may act differently than they would in a public poll response. And likewise, we see that courts tend to act differently than voters, as we saw in Iowa earlier this month. Is this an issue where gay marriage advocates are generally, all else equal, going to do better in courtrooms than they're going to do in polling places?

Rauch: For the time being, yes, but not for much longer. The most important development we've seen recently is the emergence of legislated gay marriage. The reason that gay marriage advocates started in the court was not because they hated democracy. It was that no one else would even listen. You couldn't go to a legislature and get a gay marriage bill produced. People would laugh at you. That's changed. We're now seeing gay marriage bills in, I think, over 10 legislatures, and we just saw Vermont adopt gay marriage not only by a vote of the Legislature but with enough votes to override the governor's veto. California's Legislature has approved it. If there'd been a Democratic governor it would have been signed. That really changes the dynamic. That goes back to a point that Jay made earlier. It matters not only where we go, but how we get there. And the thing legislatures are much better at than courts are: working things out politically and developing consensus. And I'm hopeful that we're starting to get onto that track.

Greenberg: I'd also just add that what happens is that over time, when you take a state like Massachusetts, which arguably is a somewhat more liberal state than others in this country, though it does have a fairly substantial socially conservative population, if you'd looked at the polls, a majority would have opposed [gay] marriage. But in the time it took not only to pass an amendment, but that issue to arise, you had the public in a different place because the sky didn't fall. So Iowa potentially has a similar dynamic. In order to pass a constitutional amendment against marriage equality there, you have to pass it in two successive legislative sessions, which means that the earliest it makes it onto the ballot is 2012, at which point there will have been two, two and a half years of marriages. I assume there will be a somewhat similar situation to what we saw in Massachusetts, where life does not change dramatically for Iowa residents, and so you might see the public in a different place. I think you have to think about public opinion. I agree with Jonathan, that it changes over time; it's more fluid and malleable depending on the context, and in the context of Massachusetts, it actually changed pretty rapidly, to the point where people stopped caring about it. We might see the same thing happen in Iowa.

Barth: I do think in 2012 it's very likely in the Republican caucus campaign in Iowa we're going to see it front and center because of the nature of that electorate.

Schaller: Just while we're on the subject, the highest level of securing rights is to constitutionalize them. We really don't talk about them that much. We usually talk about a legislative decision, a referendum, which sometimes could be a constitutional referendum, and of course, judicial rulings. Are we still a ways away from constitutionalizing in state constitutions this right?

Rauch: I don't know. We might see that in one or two states. I'm not sure why we would see it. I don't know of a particular movement to do it. The big problem for gay marriage advocates is, we are now zero for 30 on state referenda on gay marriage. Many of which have written bans on gay marriages into state constitutions, and many of which have also written bans on civil unions into state constitutions. That is, I believe, a very, very high price that we paid for the court-driven strategy. Obviously, there were reasons for that strategy. But the big problem with constitutions now will be trying to get some of that stuff off the books. And that's going to be a long, slow process, which is one reason I think we're decades from really having any sort of settlement across the country on this issue.

Barth: I agree with Jonathan on that point.

Schaller: Let's turn to the point that Jonathan makes, that gay marriage, in his argument, is good for straights -- whether they're married or not. And obviously, as a minority group, support for gay marriage will always depend on support from heterosexuals, so I'm wondering if this, despite the number of heterosexuals who learn that they have a family member or co-worker or fellow baseball coach who is gay, I wonder if there's an upper limit at some point, even with generational change, of net support that straight Americans will show to this?

Rauch: If by upper limit, you mean a hard upper limit, I guess I don't think so. But as I said, a broad consensus is still a ways off on this. I mentioned one big change in the atmospherics of this argument, and that was the legislatures. Another that's been very important in the last year or two is the mobilization of straight advocacy of same-sex marriage. For those of us who tilled these vineyards for years, it was frustrating that the only people who felt strongly were people who were only 8 percent or 5 percent of the population or whatever, and the religious right -- you know what those numbers look like, Tom. In the wake of Prop. 8 in California, we saw something in a way that I had never seen before, which was a whole lot of straight people getting involved and getting energized and feeling strongly about this issue. And that also changes the dynamic, because although I don't think there's an upper bound necessarily, I don't know where it would be, I'm more concerned with the lower bound. And that is moving up quickly, which is to say that we've gone from a situation where very few straight people care about this issue and most want to get rid of it to where there's a substantial straight constituency for gay marriage.

Schaller: Anna, do you see it that way?

Greenberg: I do. I think there is unrealized potential there. So for example, taking the Prop. 8 example, if you look at younger voters in that state and the gap between those who voted [in favor of gay marriage] and those who voted for Obama, it's a pretty substantial gap. And I would argue that there's some real work to be done in the so-called straight base of support for marriage. There's a lot more potential. I do think that we've seen some of the movement that Jon has talked about, something that Jay also mentioned, it's not just the increasing public prominence of people who are gay or coming out, it's not even having you know someone in your family or a co-worker, it's that people have people they are close to and care about who are coming out, who are gay and want to have recognition of their relationships.

In the research I've done, what's interesting, it actually isn't knowing someone that is a predictor of supporting a gay marriage. Liking and feeling close to someone who is gay is a predictor. You could have the uncle of the family who is gay, but you might not like him or you can disapprove of his choices that he's made. So it's not just having a family member or co-worker that's sufficient. But what I think we're seeing is an increasing number of people whose consciousnesses have been raised by discovering that they've got people who they care about and are close to who are gay and want to have their relationships recognized.

Rauch: In a recent piece that I just worked on, knowing a same-sex couple is also a stronger predictor than knowing any individual gay or lesbian person. And so, that's also an important part of this story is the increasing presence and visibility of sustained relationships among same-sex couples. What's interesting is that on other issues, such as employment nondiscrimination, "don't ask, don't tell," etc., knowing individuals actually is more relevant. This seems to be, this knowledge of couples, contact with couples, really seems to be particularly potent on this issue. And this gets to an issue of whether the amount of energy that the gay and lesbian rights movement is spending on marriage, and whether ... the focus of couples might work well on this issue, but on these other issues, it may not be quite as potent in shaping public opinion.

Schaller: We have time for maybe one more question. Was 2004 the high-water mark for the infusion of sexual-orientation issues into the national political electoral conversation, or do you think they might resurface in a different way, maybe gay adoption? Or are we going to start to see the fading of this as an issue of great salience in national politics?

Rauch: I think it'll bob up and down, as issues do. But my guess is -- of course as a journalist I'm clairvoyant and know all -- that 2004 will prove to be a benchmark.

Greenberg: I'm not a journalist, I'm a pollster, so I never want to guess. There are some important limitations. The anti-movement has sort of reached the limit in terms of member states where they can actually pass these ballot measures. And you have a situation where nationally, anyway -- I know something different happened in Arkansas last year -- nationally, a majority favors adoption. I think there's also an issue of running out of places to fight this fight.

Barth: I agree, I think 2004 was the high point. I do think it's also important to reflect back on 1994, when gays in the military was pretty potent in the national revolution that brought Republicans to power, especially in certain parts of the country.

Schaller: I want to thank our panel.

By Thomas Schaller

Thomas F. Schaller is professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the author of "Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South." Follow him @schaller67.

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