WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s affirmation of same-sex marriage sets up four state battles over gay unions as important tests of whether his stand — and changing public perceptions — will combine to reverse a long string of defeats at the ballot box.
Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington state are expected to decide in November whether to allow gay marriage. Despite growing public support for such unions, opponents have won almost every time the question has come before voters.
In Arizona, voters in 2006 turned back a broad prohibition on a range of gay partnerships, but later backed a measure outlawing same-sex marriage. This week, by a margin of more than 20 percentage points, North Carolina voters made it the 30th state to enact a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.
Proponents of gay marriage hope Obama’s move will tip the balance; opponents say it won’t.
David Mixner, a longtime Democratic and gay rights activist, noted wryly that Obama’s endorsement was “no more symbolic than President Johnson endorsing the Voting Rights bills. … It’s going to give momentum. It’s going to give real legitimacy. It’s going to impact those who are sitting on the fence. Anytime the president takes a major stance on any civil rights issues, whether it’s Harry Truman or John Kennedy or Lyndon Johnson, it lends the power of the presidency to that issue.”
But unlike civil rights struggles of the past, the federal government has largely been a bystander as the gay marriage movement gained momentum in recent years. And when Obama finally climbed aboard Wednesday, he went out of his way to declare that he didn’t want to nationalize the cause.
“I think it is a mistake to try to make what has traditionally been a state issue into a national issue,” Obama said, alluding to presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s support for a federal constitutional ban on gay marriage.
Activists pressing for gay marriage at the state level suggest they’ll treat Obama’s endorsement with great care, at least until its effect on public opinion becomes clearer. Those fighting to gain recognition for gay marriage say that, in an effort to avoid overtly politicizing the debate, they are unlikely to feature his support in TV ads even in Maine and Washington, the states where same-sex marriage has the best chance of winning in November.
The way that Obama delivered his endorsement has sparked conversations — a major boost, say advocates of gay rights.
“The more people talk about” the issue, “that helps us,” said Richard Carlbom, campaign manager for Minnesotans United for AllFamilies, which opposes a state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. However, he said, “the best person to deliver this message is a Minnesotan who other Minnesotans identify with.”
Six states and the District of Columbia issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. (Same-sex marriages in California are on hold pending court review.) This year, the Democratic governors of Maryland and Washington signed laws permitting same-sex marriage, but opponents are gathering signatures for ballot measures that would prevent those laws from going into effect.
In Maine, voters repealed the state’s gay marriage law in 2009. But gay advocates have succeeded in putting a referendum legalizing same-sex marriage on the ballot this November. As part of their persuasion effort, they have attempted to depoliticize the issue in the state, which has a pronounced independent streak.
Referring to Obama, Matt McTighe, campaign manager of Mainers United for Marriage, an alliance in favor of gay marriage, said that “one person’s journey isn’t going to necessarily change anything on the ground,” even if that person is the president.
Obama’s most valuable contribution may have been how he described his evolution on the issue. In the ABC interview, he related dinner-table discussions about his daughters’ friends whose parents are same-sex couples.
“That’s the same kind of conversation that’s taking place at kitchen tables around America,” said Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry, a pro-gay-marriage group. He said Obama’s explanation about “how he had opened his heart and changed his mind” was the most important part of the president’s statement.
Obama also placed his personal opinion in the context of his values as a “practicing Christian,” in line with efforts by gay marriage proponents to sway conservative voters. Obama said that, contrary to those who believe same-sex marriage is at odds with Christian teachings, it “is not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf — but it’s also the golden rule, you know? Treat others the way you’d want to be treated.”
Carroll Conley, director of the Christian Civic League of Maine, a foe of same-sex marriage, said gay marriage proponents in his state had chosen to “rally the clergy” and “integrate religion into this.”
But he predicted that Obama’s endorsement would change relatively few votes on the ballot measure. Instead, he said the president’s announcement may prompt a backlash, particularly among anti-Obama voters who feel “intimidated” by proponents of gay marriage.
In the past, greater intensity among same-sex marriage opponents has given them outsized strength at the ballot box. Wolfson, of Freedom to Marry, acknowledged that gaining a majority among the electorate as a whole is “an uphill fight for any minority group,” which is why minority rights are not usually won by referendum but by court or legislative action.
Opposition to gay unions from African Americans has also bolstered proponents of traditional marriage. In 2008, black voters in California backed Obama by a ratio of 9 to 1, then overwhelmingly voted for Proposition 8, the successful ballot measure to overturn the state Supreme Court’s decision allowing same-sex marriage.
Derek McCoy, of the Maryland Marriage Alliance, which is attempting to invalidate that state’s gay marriage law, predicted that Obama’s endorsement would sway few African Americans there, where they make up about one-fourth of the electorate.
“I’ve had several people call me that were Obama supporters, that voted for him, that said, ‘I can’t believe that he went all the way out there and did this,’” said McCoy, associate pastor of the 2,500-member Hope Christian Church in majority-black Prince Georges County outside Washington.
Both sides have used high-profile endorsements to influence public opinion on the emotionally charged issue. Former President Bill Clinton stepped into the North Carolina fray when he recorded an automated phone call urging voters to reject the state’s gay marriage ban. The Rev. Billy Graham, in a full-page newspaper ad, asked them to support it.
But strategists for gay marriage initiatives say the most powerful statements are more often delivered to undecided voters by friends and co-workers.
“Voters conflicted on this issue are struggling on a very personal level,” said Amy Simon, a Democratic pollster in Oakland, who is advising the gay rights forces in Maine and Washington. “Having regular people talk about it is more connecting, because people identify more with everyday people and how they think about it.”
(c)2012 Tribune Co.