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Will Obama Pay for Gay Marriage Stance in November?

Will Obama Pay for Gay Marriage Stance in November?

By Alexis Simendinger and Erin McPike - May 10, 2012


President Obama's personal embrace of same-sex marriage could cost him votes in key swing states in November, he conceded during an interview with ABC News on Wednesday.

"In some places that are going to be pretty important on this electoral map, it may hurt me," Obama said. 

Political analysts said it is impossible to gauge in a vacuum whether the first-ever presidential endorsement of gay marriage will prove a net loss for Obama on Election Day, compared with the support his change of heart might mobilize, including among younger voters, who overwhelmingly back marriage equality, according to recent polling.

“There are obvious risks in this, but I dispute the conventional wisdom that somehow this is a straightforward political loser,” said veteran Democratic political adviser Robert Shrum. “I think there are people who disagree with the president on this, and will vote for him anyway.”

On Wednesday, many of the president’s admirers and some of his detractors described as “brave” and “a risk” his decision to shift from a self-described “evolving” position on a social issue that is both controversial and fast-moving. His job approval hovered at 47 percent as he sat down for the ABC interview, offering scant cushion for serious stumbles.

America’s views on same-sex marriage are complex, blending cultural, legal, moral and religious arguments. Gallup this month reported that 65 percent of Democrats and 57 percent of independents believe gays should be allowed to legally marry. Republicans were the most resistant, with 74 percent saying gay marriage should not be legal.

Only six states and Washington, D.C., recognize same-sex marriages, while more than 30 states have erected barriers to marriage equality. Analysts suggest the president’s announcement could cost him votes in swing states that he narrowly won in 2008, including North Carolina (won by a 14,000-vote margin over John McCain), Ohio (262,000 votes), and perhaps Florida, where many senior citizens, considered reliable voters, oppose gay marriage.

North Carolina voted Tuesday to ban gay marriage, a defeat so galling to gay rights advocates that they circulated a petition asking the Democratic Party to protest by moving the party’s national nominating convention out of Charlotte. Colorado Republicans the same day blocked a measure that would have approved civil unions. The state’s Democratic governor announced he would call a special legislative session to tackle civil unions and other bills left hanging. In 2008, Obama held his rousing convention in Denver, and went on to win Colorado by 215,000 votes.

Catholics in Pennsylvania, Hispanics in swing states, African-Americans opposed to gay marriage on religious grounds, and older voters uncomfortable with gay rights could feel alienated by Obama’s personal views and opt to support Mitt Romney or another candidate, or simply stay home. But if they do, it is likely they had bigger differences with the president than just his stance on gay marriage.

The president and his advisers had anticipated for several months that his position would likely have to shift prior to the convention in September if he hoped to avoid embarrassing battles while the party debated marriage equality as a plank in the party’s platform.

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.

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Alexis Simendinger is the White House correspondent for RealClearPolitics. Erin McPike is a national political reporter for RCP.

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