What Obama has done for gay marriage

A favorite talking point of marriage equality opponents will be dead a few months from now

Published May 24, 2012 3:55PM (EDT)

President Obama’s public endorsement of gay marriage hasn’t had any discernible effect on his approval rating or his head-to-head standing with Mitt Romney. And with Romney and most top Republicans largely content to leave the subject alone, it seems clear that the marriage issue will play a very minimal role in the national campaign, if any at all.

But a new PPP poll provides evidence that Obama’s announcement will play a major role in killing one of the most persistent talking points for opponents of gay marriage.

Maryland legalized same-sex marriage back in March, when Gov. Martin O’Malley signed a bill passed by a Democratic Legislature. Opponents immediately mobilized to put a repeal referendum on this November’s ballot, and initial polling showed only a slight majority of voters favored upholding the law. But in the new survey, the margin has exploded to 20 points, 57 to 37 percent, a shift that PPP explains this way:

The movement over the last two months can be explained almost entirely by a major shift in opinion about same-sex marriage among black voters. Previously 56% said they would vote against the new law with only 39% planning to uphold it. Those numbers have now almost completely flipped, with 55% of African Americans planning to vote for the law and only 36% now opposed.

This is consistent with an ABC News/Washington Post poll of national voters this week, which showed support for marriage equality among African-Americans jumping from 41 to 59 percent in the wake of Obama’s announcement.

In Maryland, the surge in black support means that gay marriage is very likely to be approved by voters this fall. If that happens, opponents will no longer be able to make a claim they’ve been relying on for years – that everywhere gay marriage has been on the ballot, it’s been rejected by voters. Tony Perkins and Ken Blackwell, for instance, penned a column for Fox News earlier this week that made sure to note that “in the 32 states where voters have been allowed to express their views, all 32 have affirmed traditional marriage and rejected its same-sex redefinition.”

That will no longer be the case a few months from now, unless there’s some kind of major, hard-to-envision shift in public opinion in Maryland.

Nor is Maryland alone. In Maine, marriage equality supporters have placed a referendum on this November’s ballot, and polling suggests it has a good chance of passing. There may also be a vote in Washington, where opponents are collecting signatures in an effort to thwart a marriage law signed by Gov. Christine Gregoire earlier this year; if they reach the signature threshold by June 6, the law won’t go into effect unless voters support it in the November referendum. A February poll showed voters supporting the law by a 49-44 percent spread.

All of this speaks to the rapid pace of change in public opinion on this issue. The “every state has voted against it” talking point sounds compelling, but many of the state referendums that account for it took place years ago, when the idea of gay marriage still had a fringe feel to it. Back in 2004, when it was legalized in Massachusetts by the state’s Supreme Court, just 30 percent of Americans said they favored same-sex marriage. In this week’s ABC/Washington Post survey, the number is 53 percent. In just the past couple of years, the shift has been marked. In 2009, Maine voters actually rejected gay marriage by a 6-point margin; it’s a measure of where things stand now that supporters initiated the push to put it back on the ballot this year.

The idea of state referendums, which violate the principle of not using the ballot box to decide minority rights, is a complicated one for marriage equality proponents. And even as states begin voting for gay marriage, it won’t be a complete solution, since there are plenty of other states where it will take years, maybe decades, for popular support to even approach 50 percent. Still, the anti-gay marriage crowd should probably enjoy their 0-for-32 talking point while they can, because it won’t be valid for much longer.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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