No doubt Barack Obama did not intend to do Mitt Romney a favor when he announced his support for same-sex marriage last week.
But for Romney, the announcement provided a critical opportunity, both to energize the social conservatives in his base and to drive a wedge between Obama and certain key demographics. “There is a greater opening now [for Romney] with Hispanic voters and African Americans,” a GOP strategist says.
Some African-American pastors have indicated that they are concerned about the decision. Obama held a conference call with a group of top black religious leaders almost immediately after announcing his support for gay marriage, according to the New York Times, which reported that a “vocal few made it clear that the president’s stand on gay marriage might make it difficult for them to support his re-election.”
It’s not clear to what extent the president’s stance may erode his support among minority voters. Ralph Reed, founder and chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, expects that they will continue to favor Obama. “But 70 percent of African-American voters voted for traditional marriage in California, and it seems to me this issue is an unnecessary cross-pressure on his support among blacks and Latinos,” he adds.
Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, dismisses the idea that black voters will turn to Romney and doubts that Catholics who don’t regularly attend mass will be swayed. He does, however, see a chance for Romney to perhaps knock Obama’s lead among Hispanics down by a few points. Hispanics, he observes, have been a group unusually loyal to Obama. “It’s the one portion of the electorate that Obama is doing better with than he did four years ago,” Sabato remarks, speculating that Romney’s views on immigration have won him few friends among Hispanic voters. But if the Romney campaign emphasizes Obama’s support for same-sex marriage, “this could be a way to bring some of them back.” For Romney, picking up even a small percentage of minority voters — or benefiting from minority voters’ being too discouraged by Obama’s positions to bother voting for him — would be a valuable help in what looks likely to be a close race.
The issue is also giving him a crucial boost among social conservatives, energizing them not just to vote for Romney, but also to consider donating to and volunteering for his campaign. As Family Research Council president Tony Perkins observed on Face the Nation on Sunday, Obama’s pro-same-sex-marriage position could unleash “that missing piece of intensity that Mitt Romney is going to need.”
In his commencement speech at evangelical Liberty University on Saturday, Romney stated his opposition to gay marriage. “Marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman,” he said, winning cheers from the conservative crowd. His speech also won an enthusiastic response from prominent social conservative Gary Bauer, who issued a statement calling it a “grand slam,” citing, among other things, Romney’s “compassionate defense of marriage between a man and a woman.”
Sabato sees other potential benefits, besides renewed enthusiasm, for Romney in his newfound status with social conservatives. “It probably gives him a little more flexibility, even with the ticket,” he observes.
And the issue isn’t likely to disappear. “It’s going to come up throughout the campaign. Both the president and the governor will be asked about it,” one Republican strategist predicts.
It’s an issue that will further define Obama as a candidate out of sync with many religious voters. Reed notes that support for same-sex marriage is just the latest in a series of decisions Obama has made that have rankled conservative religious voters, including his decisions to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act and to force religious employers to offer health-insurance plans covering contraceptives.
“I expect a large turnout of conservative voters of faith,” Reed remarks. “Obama has given Mitt Romney an unanticipated gift.”
— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.