On the day the California supreme court redefined the state’s definition of marriage, a gay activist from New Jersey made the following prediction. “What happens in California does not stay in California,” Steven Goldstein, chairman of Garden State Equality, told the Newark Star Ledger. “And that is a great thing for equality.” Yet it would not be a great thing for Barack Obama (or Hillary Clinton, for that matter). In fact, it might well cost him the election.
Suppose the California ruling moves forward and other state judges follow its lead. Gay nuptials will not be limited to the Golden State and Massachusetts. The debate over gay marriage will spread to other states, including several purple ones. The prospect of Adam and Steve being married will suddenly become a live issue. In a close election, Obama could lose one to four percentage points. (He has come out against the Defense of Marriage Act, and for allowing states to permit homosexual marriage.)
This scenario is hypothetical, of course. The California supreme court has been asked by conservative groups to stay its ruling until November, when state residents are likely to vote on a ballot initiative to ban homosexual marriage. The Connecticut and Rhode Island supreme courts have been asked to preserve the traditional definition of marriage. Those three things might occur. If so, the threat of gay marriages and liberal activist judges will be a theoretical one to voters this November.
But I bet that California’s supreme court won’t take the democratic path. As a native Californian, I am quite familiar with its post-1968 history of arrogating controversial cultural issues to itself. To take the most recent example, in 1996 Ronald George, the chief justice, played a key role in overturning the state’s parental-consent law on abortion for minors.
The state court is therefore likely to let gay marriages proceed immediately. Because state marriage laws have no residency requirements and no waiting periods, homosexual couples can travel to the Golden State and return home in the hope that their state will recognize their marriage as valid.
The key states are likely to be New Jersey, New Mexico, and Iowa. The first two have no laws defining marriage; in Iowa, last August a judge in the Iowa City area tossed out the state’s ban on gay marriage, before staying his decision an hour later. All three states are likely to be contested this fall.
New Jersey’s 15 electoral votes would be the biggest prize. Although George W. Bush lost the state to John Kerry by 6 percentage points, McCain, as a more centrist candidate, is likely to fare better. He is ahead of Obama by one percentage point, according to Rasmussen. If California-wed gay couples flock to the state, his lead is likely to stay or expand on the strength of support from the state’s Catholics, blacks, and working-class whites, three groups who oppose gay marriage strongly.
New Mexico’s five electoral votes would also be in play. As of now, the state looks to be a Democratic pickup. Obama leads McCain by nine percentage points, according to Rasmussen. Yet this lead is sure to evaporate if the California ruling proceeds, as Hispanics and working-class whites defect.
Iowa’s seven electoral votes will also be competitive. As of now, Obama is ahead of McCain by two percentage points, according to Rasmussen. It’s unclear what would happen if gay couples sought legal recognition in the state. But any controversy is certain to hurt Obama among the state’s evangelical, Catholic, rural, and working-class white voters, the latter three of which are key constituencies Democrats need to keep on board.
Social conservatives have sought to find a silver-bullet issue for four years. Barack Obama, you can bet, hopes that gay marriage won’t be one this November.
–Mark Stricherz, a contributor to GetReligion.org and InsideCatholic.com, is the author of Why the Democrats Are Blue: Secular Liberalism and the Decline of the People’s Party (Encounter Books).