President Obama has come out in favor of gay marriage, contradicting his positions in 2008. It’s not surprising that Obama is suddenly an advocate of same-sex marriage—I rather doubt that anyone took his position on marriage seriously in 2008, and those that did were almost certainly deluding themselves. But the real question is why now? Why has the political calculus changed so that President Obama feels safe in supporting gay marriage?
First, the timing is rather suspicious. The voters of North Carolina (a key swing state that went for Obama in 2008) just handily approved a constitutional amendment that not only bans gay marriage, but civil unions as well. And other voters in key swing states like Ohio and Florida tend to be anti-SSM, including older voters, Catholic voters, and especially African-Americans. Granted, the President’s sudden about-face helps distract from this weeks electoral drubbing—not only did gay marriage lose in North Carolina, but Gov. Scott Walker received nearly as many votes as his potential challengers in Wisconsin and the President only won 59-41 against a federal prisoner in the West Virginia Democratic primary. All-in-all, this week was a very bad week for Democrats nationwide. By throwing himself into the gay marriage debate, the President has created yet another distraction.
It’s All About the Benjamins
But that doesn’t seem to be sufficient explanation for why the President has suddenly embraced gay marriage. This article at RealClearPolitics suggests a much more plausible explanation for the President’s changed stance:
As the campaign shifts into a more intense phase and Obama maintains a brisk schedule to raise campaign cash, he has appealed to wealthy Democrats who are active in the gay rights movement. Some have been slow to open their wallets for the super PACs that support Obama’s re-election, explaining publicly that they wanted to see movement from Obama on marriage and other issues. Obama’s gay rights supporters have commended the administration on at least two fronts: first, repealing with Congress the law barring openly gay members from military service, and second, the president’s decision to stand down on enforcement of the Defense of Marriage Act. That law, signed by President Clinton in 1996, defines marriage as the union of one man and one woman.
On Thursday, some gay rights advocates will attend a $12 million Hollywood fundraiser at the Los Angeles home of actor George Clooney, co-hosted with DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg. Next week in New York, the president will receive Barnard College’s Medal of Distinction and deliver the commencement address, alongside fellow honoree Evan Wolfson, founder of advocacy group Freedom to Marry. And on Monday in New York, the president will attend a fundraiser for gay rights supporters. On June 6, leading into annual gay pride events in Los Angeles, the president expects to return to the West Coast to headline an event for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, at which rocker Pink is expected to perform.
In short, it’s all about the money. Obama’s fundraising is not matching 2008 levels, and Romney has plenty of SuperPAC cash running in. The Obama campaign is making a calculated play here: they are thinking that the gay marriage issue will help him enough with big-money donors that it won’t matter that he’s potentially hurting his standing with key swing voters. After all, African-Americans are going to vote for Obama at a rate of 90%+ no matter what—so why does Obama care whether they are the most strongly anti-SSM group in the country? The worst that could happen is that they stay home, and even if that happens, Obama is hoping that he’ll have enough margin elsewhere to make up for those losses.
There’s also the youth vote: Obama knows that gay marriage is much more popular with younger voters than it is with older ones. But younger voters are the ones that have been hit the hardest in the Obama economy, and they’re not nearly as motivated to go out and vote for Obama as they were four years ago. By highlighting the gay marriage issue, Obama is hoping to get those 20-something voters to get out again.
And of course, this is also part and parcel of the Obama campaign’s plan: do whatever it takes to distract voters from the state of the economy. The Obama team has access to the same numbers that the rest of us do, and they know that their idea of running on an economic recovery is looking less and less realistic as more bad news keeps dribbling out. So the Obama campaign is doing whatever it can to focus attention on anything but economic issues: they’ve tried to launch the “war on women” meme, they “spiked the football” on the bin Laden killing, and now the President is going gaga for gay marriage. It’s a transparent attempt at distraction.
Playing Into Romney’s Hands
But ultimately, the Obama campaign is making a serious mistake by focusing the campaign on social issues. They are assuming, as most Democrats do, that “social issues” are a loser for the Republicans. That assumption isn’t true: the majority of states have voted against same-sex marriage. If the polling showing that same-sex marriage is broadly popular is right, what explains the disconnect? The most cogent explanation is that what people are telling pollsters doesn’t match what they really believe and are expressing in the voting booth. In other words, gay marriage is not nearly as popular as the Democrats believe it to be. In the end, while Obama’s support of gay marriage may energize certain parts of the Democratic base, it will have less effect on independent voters.
It will also help Romney consolidate his support among conservative and evangelical voters. Right now Romney is doing very well with independents, but does not have strong support with conservatives and evangelicals. The Obama team is betting that by focusing the debate on social issues it might bring liberal voters to their side—which is true, but it will also motivate conservative and evangelical voters to vote against Obama and for Romney. While it’s hard to say now whether the President’s move benefits him or Romney, the fact that he doubled down on gay marriage is suggestive of his weakened political position.
The President’s “evolution” on the subject of gay marriage was a risky move by the President. He is clearly hoping to achieve two things by embracing gay marriage: motivate the liberal base and get them to open their wallets. It’s very likely that the President will achieve those goals, but at the cost of potentially losing swing voters and helping Romney consolidate the conservative vote.
Even though this move ultimately benefits Romney, he can still misplay his hand. The Romney campaign has to show a laser-like focus on the economy. To borrow a line from the 1992 Bill Clinton campaign: “it’s the economy, stupid!” The President will do his damnedest to push the narrative away from the dismal state of the U.S. economy, and his allies in the media will go right along with the campaign’s narrative. The Romney campaign must use social media, grassroots campaigning, and well-place political ads to remind the country that there’s one candidate focused on the issues that actually matter to Americans, and it’s not Barack Obama.