May 10, 2012

Both sides wary of same-sex politics

Taking the explosive issue to the presidential campaign trail could backfire on either party.

By KAREN TUMULTY The Washington Post

President Obama hoped that announcing his change of heart in favor of same-sex marriage would put the issue to rest as a topic in his bid for re-election.

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Gretchen Colby casts her vote Tuesday in Brunswick County, N.C. North Carolina voters came out strongly in favor of a ban on same-sex marriage, but national polls suggest supporters of gay marriage rights slightly outnumber opponents.

The Associated Press

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The immediate result, however, was that both sides seized upon it as an opportunity to energize their bases.

On the left, there was jubilation over Obama's declaration that he now believes "same-sex couples should be able to get married." There was also hope that his stance will energize liberals and young voters, whose flagging enthusiasm Obama will need to rekindle this fall.

From the right came a call to arms that could make it easier for Mitt Romney, the all-but-certain GOP nominee, to rally conservatives who have been lukewarm to his candidacy.

But amid the initial furor, there was also a recognition -- by both parties -- that there is danger in inflaming passions and raising expectations about one of the most volatile social and cultural issues of the day.

"No one knows how (the political implications of Obama's announcement) will play out," said Chad Griffin, a major Democratic fundraiser who is set to take over in June as head of Human Rights Campaign, a leading organization lobbying for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights. "I expect this issue to really die down, and we'll be back to the issues of jobs and the economy."

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, sounded a similar note.

"I've always believed that marriage was between a man and a woman," Boehner told Fox Business Network. "The Republicans here on Capitol Hill are focused in on the economy. The American people are still asking 'Where are the jobs?' and our focus is going to continue to be on the economy like it has been for the last year and a half."

And while Romney reaffirmed his opposition to gay marriage at a campaign stop in Oklahoma, he did so cautiously, noting that it is "a very tender and sensitive topic, as are many social issues."

When the question has been put to the voters over the past decade -- more than 30 times in state referendums since 1988 -- they have come down against gay marriage every time.

Three-quarters of the states now ban gay marriage in some fashion. Just a day before Obama's announcement, North Carolina voters, by an overwhelming margin, added a ban to their state constitution.

But attitudes are shifting. In the past year, almost every major poll has shown that a slim majority now supports same-sex marriage as a right. In March, a Washington Post-ABC News survey found 52 percent said gay marriage should be legal, while 43 percent said it shouldn't.

That, however, masked a deep partisan divide. Democrats overwhelmingly supported gay marriage, by 64 to 32 percent, and independents by a narrower 54 to 42 percent. Republicans opposed it, by 57 to 39 percent.

Just as significant is the gap among age groups. Young voters are far more likely to support the idea of gay marriage, no matter their party affiliation -- older ones more frequently oppose it.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., noted that generational divide in a statement in which he said that while he does not oppose anyone being allowed to marry whomever they want, "my personal belief is that marriage is between a man and a woman."

But he added: "In talking with my children and grandchildren, it has become clear to me they take marriage equality as a given. I have no doubt that their view will carry the future."

The downside political risk of Obama's announcement is mitigated by the fact that he is unlikely to lose many African American voters over it, despite their skepticism of gay marriage. In the last year of polling by the Post and ABC News, just 42 percent of African Americans said they support legalization, while 55 percent oppose it.

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