The Electoral Implications of Obama’s “Evolution” on Same-Sex Marriage

There will be much speculation on what this means for the outcome of the 2012 presidential election.  What will make such speculation even minimally informed and worth paying attention to?  Here’s a guide.

The president’s announcement could affect voters in one or more of three ways:

1) Changing how they feel about gay marriage itself—perhaps even persuading some to support it.

2) Changing how much their own feelings about gay marriage predicts who they will vote for.  A possible hypothesis is that attitudes toward gay marriage will become more strongly related to voter choice, now that the president has stated this position (again) and thereby provided a definitive point of contrast to Romney.

3) Changing whether or how they will vote in November. Perhaps via some combination of #1-2.

So the first task in evaluating speculation is to say, how many of these 4 3 are being discussed?  Using the same numbering, the follow-up questions to ask are:

1) How many people’s feelings about gay marriage would change as a result of the President’s interview?  What is a plausible estimate?  Support for gay marriage has grown by 5 percent in the past 2 years, according to Pew data.  Could the president’s announcement create that much change all at once?  More?  Less?  Why?

2) If same-sex marriage becomes a bigger factor in voters’ minds, that means the president might both lose support among those who oppose gay marriage and gain support among those who favor gay marriage.  If both things happen, which involves more votes?  In other words, what are the net effects?  Moreover, why would the issue of gay marriage remain salient from now until November, despite the host of other issues that could easily outweigh it (such as the economy)?  How many voters are really “single-issue” voters with regard to same-sex marriage, and how many of their votes were really up for grabs anyway?

3) What percentage of people really make the decision about whether to vote based on the candidates’ positions on a single issue?  And what percentage of voters are truly persuadable in terms of the candidate they support?  Why would these voters make a decision about whom to vote based on Obama’s position on gay marriage?  Are these “marginal” voters the kinds of people who are likely to follow the news closely enough to know Obama’s position?  If particular groups of voters might be turned on/off by the president’s announcement, what fraction of the electorate do those voters comprise?  Are those voters located in battleground states?  If so, in what proportion?

My prediction is that, once these factors are put together and doing the math—small changes in attitudes among small numbers of voters, etc., etc.—it’s not likely that Obama’s announcement will be a significant factor in November.  In the meantime, if pundits want to speculate, these are the questions they should ask and answer.

11 Responses to The Electoral Implications of Obama’s “Evolution” on Same-Sex Marriage

  1. Michael Cornfield May 9, 2012 at 4:15 pm #

    The impact on gay activists could be much larger. More donations, endorsements, canvassing. Their influence on voters, step by Lazarsfeldian step, could be significant.

  2. RS May 9, 2012 at 4:31 pm #

    Sure, the effect may be small. But if it generates enthusiasm among young, college-going voters in battleground states like North Carolina, that might be enough. (Frankly, how many think Obama is going to lose NC African-Americans to the GOP over this issue?)

  3. Roger E. Hartley May 9, 2012 at 4:38 pm #

    As a person living in a battle ground state (NC)…and as someone who was involved in the campaign against our Amendment…there are some interesting questions raised in NC. First, given the vote total for the Amendment (61%), this announcement is not only historic (First sitting President to endorse gay marriage?) but courageous. My colleague at Western Carolina, Chris Cooper, argues that the less that Obama talks about same sex marriage in NC the better for his re-election chances here. I tend to agree given the outcome of the vote. BUT there are some interesting possibilities here. It certainly could energize some activists, it sends a message to younger voters that his is “with it” and “gets it”. And of course, he will need those voters. What Jason notes is if it will also galvanize voters against same sex marriage.

    Well, what if he makes the announcement now…for his base and for history…and then fall silent until the election. Other issues are the top of the charts for people, people who are against same sex marriage arent in favor of him anyway, and he at least tell people (like me) that he is really on my side on an issue that is important.

    Last question/issue to raise. Some of us who worked to defeat the Amendment in our state might ask: where the heck were you yesterday when we needed you most? While a Presidential endorsement would have been unlikely to the reverse the good fortune of the 61% that made same sex marriage and civil unions Constitutionally illegal yesterday, it sure would have been a much wider statement to this battleground state of where he stands when it matters.


    Roger Hartley
    Western Carolina University

  4. Andreas Moser May 9, 2012 at 4:39 pm #

    Courageous leadership on a hotly contested issue should contrast very well with flip-flopping on almost all issues by Mitt Romney. Hats off to Barack Obama!

    • Roger E. Hartley May 9, 2012 at 4:50 pm #

      Jason’s point to that effect, and your argument Andreas, is really important. It does allow him to provide a clear contrast on an issue. Romney really doesn’t want to be talking about social issues right now…especially given the “etch a sketch” strategy. This certainly forces that discussion a bit. Again, though, how does this help him in the 8 battleground states? It might if he raises enthusiasm among the base and younger voters (who don’t vote) and then leaves the issue alone.

  5. Roger E. Hartley May 9, 2012 at 4:53 pm #

    Pardon me John, I know a Jason Sides!

  6. DF May 9, 2012 at 5:06 pm #

    I think there’s another question, though. Say it has no effect on the election, and Romney wins. What does that mean for DOMA being defended by the Justice Department? For anti-discrimination protections? In other words, if Obama’s staking out a position here forces Romney to take a position diametrically opposed, can we expect even more conservative policy choices with respect to gay rights under a Romney administration?

    One could flip the question around, too, and ask if Democrats will push more liberal policy choices on gay issues if Obama is reelected.

  7. Greg sanders May 9, 2012 at 5:16 pm #

    It’s not the 2012 presidential election, but I thought I’d check the interpretation of consequences for my state.

    I think that even Obama doesn’t campaign hard on the issue, this will probably greatly increase the chances of defeating a ballot initiative in Maryland that would block recent legislation legalizing same sex marriage.

    As I understand it, Presidential statements tend to increase support from the President’s party while at the same time reducing support from the opposing party. In a majority Democratic state like Maryland, that trade-off should help consolidate opposition to the ballot initiative.

  8. Matt Corley May 9, 2012 at 5:43 pm #

    Beyond the potential (though not necessarily significant) electoral ramifications, I wouldn’t be surprised if Obama’s clear endorsement of gay marriage affected the level of support for gay marriage among Republicans. In the Pew data linked by John above, between roughly a fifth and a quarter of Republicans have supported gay marriage since 2001. Will that number drop in a significant way now that the issue is more closely associated with President Obama?

  9. James Newburg May 9, 2012 at 8:31 pm #

    Two recent works in the public opinion literature come to mind in light of Obama’s announcement.

    First, Donald Kinder and Cindy Kam’s work on ethnocentrism would seem to suggest the Obama announcement and its subsequent relevance over the course of the campaign may prime voters to use ethnocentrism to an even greater degree in forming their vote choice in 2012 than they did in 2008. While Obama’s race, misperceived Muslim faith and cosmopolitan life experience have previously signaled to whites with high ethnocentric predispositions that he is “unlike us”, his association with yet another salient social outgroup may further prime such considerations.

    Similarly, Michael Tesler’s work in the latest AJPS suggests that racial attitudes will have a stronger relationship with gay marriage now that Obama has taken a public position on the issue. As one becomes more racially conservative, they will now be even less likely to support same-sex marriage than they were before today, other things being equal. Additionally, we may expect to observe a subsequent increase in the black/white racial divide in support for same-sex marriage, though to what degree blacks will become more supportive and whites less supportive in the wake of today’s announcement is speculative.

  10. Simon May 10, 2012 at 1:41 pm #

    The aspect of this I’m most interested in (and the aspect which seems to be getting the least attention in the wider media) is your point number one – the impact that this will have on public opinion over gay marriage.

    Since black Americans seem to be the one of the most pro-Obama demographics and also one of the most anti-gay rights demographic (black men in particular), I hope we can see some research showing the impact that this has on their views on gay marriage.