For me, the first, last and most important question about gay marriage is: Will it help or hurt marriage as a social institution? Is it, in other words, a good idea? But for political elites a second question naturally comes close behind: What are the likely political consequences of making same-sex marriage a highly visible issue, through a federal marriage amendment, or some other means?
Conventional wisdom has it that this is a difficult issue for both Democrats and Republicans. This perception is probably fueled by the reality that GOP and Democratic elites live in the same zip codes and attend the same graduate schools–elite enclaves where (polls show) support for gay marriage is strongest. (The only education group where a majority of Americans supports gay marriage is people with graduate degrees). GOP pols are as affected as the rest of us by these personal social networks: What will the neighbors think? How will I explain it to my wife?
A recent New York Times headline, “What Partisans Embrace, Politicians Fear,” reflects this conventional political wisdom: “In one corner are social conservatives with their fists raised…In the other corner are gays, lesbians and their supporters, fists aimed at those who would press for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage…In the middle of the ring are President Bush and the Democratic candidates for president, caught ever more uncomfortably between the edges of their parties.”
Public-opinion polls, however, suggest quite the opposite conclusion: Gay marriage poses an enormous political problem for the Democratic party alone.
Look first at the broad outlines of the issue. The progressive myth is that history moves only in one direction: towards greater tolerance for whatever gay and lesbian activists advocate. But polls show that American opinion is trending in the opposite direction on the marriage issue. Last summer, after the Lawrence decision put a big media spotlight on gay marriage, American support for civil unions dropped 12 percentage points. A Pew poll released last month confirmed the same development: rising opposition to gay marriage (from 53 percent in July to 59 percent in October). Perhaps most strikingly, in Canada (a more liberal and less religious society than the U.S.), a just-released poll shows that only 31 percent of Canadians now support redefining marriage to include same-sex couples.
When it comes to intensity of opinion, the politics of gay marriage favors its opponents even more heavily. In an Associated Press poll this August, by a five-to-one margin, Americans who saw gay marriage as a voting issue were more likely to oppose it than favor it. Just 10 percent of Americans would be more inclined to vote for a candidate because of his or her support for gay marriage, compared to 49 percent of voters who would be less likely to vote for such a candidate.
But for the Democrats there is even worse news: The emergence of gay marriage splits the Democratic base. According to the October Pew poll, voters who say they are inclined to vote for the Democratic presidential candidate over Bush (the so-called “generic” presidential poll) split evenly over the gay-marriage issue, with 48 percent opposing and 46 percent favoring. When it comes to intensity, the gap is even wider: Just 14 percent of likely Democratic voters strongly favor same-sex marriage, while 25 percent are strongly opposed.
Meanwhile, at least 60 percent of African Americans oppose same-sex marriage. Many say they feel viscerally betrayed at the transfer of the civil-rights mantle to further this cause. The Times reported on August 8, 2003, that since 2000, African-American identification with the Democratic party plunged 11 percentage points (from 74 to 63 percent). Could the increasing identification of same-sex marriage by Democratic interest groups as the civil-rights issue of our day be a contributing cause?
Almost all Democratic presidential candidates say they oppose gay marriage. But most say they are against any effort to stop courts from imposing gay marriage as well. A strong, intelligent, bipartisan, multiracial effort to pass a Federal Marriage Amendment that focuses on the marriage issue itself?
For the Dem elites, it’s a nightmare. But for America, it could be an opportunity.
–Maggie Gallagher is president of the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, which sponsors www.marriagedebate.com.