The Magazine

Gay Marriage and the Election

The media won't mention it, but polls show a winning issue for the GOP.

Apr 5, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 29 • By MARK STRICHERZ
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BILL CAIN is a classic New Deal Democrat. Eighty years old, Cain grew up and lives in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, an old steel town about 30 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. He graduated from Greensburg High, was drafted into the Marines during World War II, and supported his wife and six kids on the wages of a factory worker.

One recent afternoon, Cain was running errands on Euclid Avenue in a working-class section of town. Dressed in blue jeans and a tan jacket, he was holding in his left hand a broom and in his right hand a plastic lawn chair. In a deep voice reminiscent of actor Bob Mitchum, he said, "I've been a Democrat all my life." After voting twice for Clinton, in 2000, he went for George W. Bush. A frequent mass-goer at the Blessed Sacrament Cathedral downtown, Cain supports the president's conservative stand on social issues such as abortion.

Indeed, Cain said his vote will be cast not on the economy or the war in Iraq. Rather, it'll be based on gay marriage. "I'm not bigoted, but the whole damn thing is that the good Lord didn't mean marriage to be for this sort of thing. He wanted marriage to be between one man and one woman, so they could procreate."

Judging by the media's recent coverage of homosexual marriage, you would never guess that many swing voters feel the same. Reporters and pundits widely assume the only groups who oppose gay marriage are Republicans and evangelicals. Therefore, President Bush's decision to support a constitutional amendment to affirm the traditional definition of marriage is "playing to the base." Everyone else, according to the press, is either indifferent to an amendment or opposes it as divisive and bigoted.

Actually, opposition to gay marriage is a far less narrow phenomenon than supposed. The Republican position is, in fact, at least a 60-40 issue, one that unites their base and attracts swing voters like Bill Cain.

The drive for homosexual marriage in this country has never been popular. Since the campaign kicked off in a 1993 case in Hawaii, a few courts have expressed sympathy, but voters never have. Indeed, in every state where voters have been asked to amend their state constitution to ban gay marriage, they have done so by a stunning margin.

In November 1998, Alaska and Hawaii became the first states to pass amendments banning same-sex recognition. In Alaska, 68 percent of voters supported the ban; in Hawaii 69 percent. In March 2000, California became the next state, when voters there approved Prop. 22, by 61 to 39 percent. Finally, in November 2000, Nevadans voted to ban gay marriage, while Nebraskans voted to prohibit same-sex marriage and domestic partnerships. In both states the amendments passed 70 percent to 30 percent.

Four years later, little has changed. In late February the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press released a study measuring voter intensity on the issue. The headline said it all: "Gay Marriage A Voting Issue, But Mostly for Opponents." A full 34 percent said they would not vote for a candidate who backed same-sex marriage. In contrast, only 6 percent said they would not support an opponent of gay nuptials.

Of course, passing a constitutional amendment affirming the traditional definition of marriage is another story. Not even the amendment's biggest supporters predict passage any time soon. Republican senator Wayne Allard of Colorado, one of the sponsors, says he hopes to get a vote this session, but avoids open talk of its winning the necessary two-thirds support. Matt Daniels, president of the Alliance for Marriage, declines to offer a prediction. He says instead that May 17, when Massachusetts starts issuing marriage licenses to gay couples, will galvanize opponents. "This will be a time when people start paying attention at the polls."

But the media have seized on the difficulty of passing a constitutional amendment, as well as the results of a few polls, to claim that most Americans support domestic partnership laws. Not true. In fact, many oppose them intensely. As much was said in a January 2004 memo by Republican pollster Bill McInturff of Public Opinion Strategies. It reported that if President Bush opposed civil unions while running against a Democratic nominee who favored them, "Bush picks up a net 12 points in his favor."

Those most opposed to gay marriage are the white working class. Over the years this group has been referred to as Joe Sixpack, Reagan Democrats, NASCAR dads, and waitress moms. But their ideology remains roughly the same--economically liberal and culturally moderate or conservative. And while the media tend to dismiss them, they represent a crucial voting bloc. Indeed, both McInturff and Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg have found independently that this group will vote to oppose gay rights.

This group, according to McInturff, consists of Democratic men, seniors, union members, and residents of Bush-leaning swing states. Subsequent polls have revealed another development: Many of these voters live, as Bill Cain does, in the battleground states of the Rust Belt and Midwest.

For example, the exit polls from Super Tuesday's Democratic primary in Ohio showed only 26 percent of these Democratic voters supporting gay marriage, while only 28 percent backed civil unions. Even the spokesman for the Ohio Democratic party concedes that some Buckeye Democrats are likely to defect in November. "The people who are older have often made up their minds that homosexuality is wrong," said Dan Trevas. And "there are less educated voters who haven't been exposed to a lot of different cultures." Condescending, perhaps, but true.

Soccer moms certainly aren't the only swing voters. In 2000, voters with a high school degree or less made up about a quarter of those who went to the polls. Save for 1972, this had been a reliably Democratic constituency since the advent of the New Deal. But then in 1988 and 2000 both Bush and his father won this group by one percentage point. In 2000, Greenberg found in a postelection analysis, the number one reason white voters without four-year college degrees turned away from Al Gore was concern for the culture. "The cultural minefield caused the most damage," Greenberg wrote, "moving non-college white women and younger non-college white men to Bush."

A final group that actively opposes gay marriage is seniors. According to the Pew poll, 45 percent of those aged 65 and over said they would not vote for a candidate who supported gay marriage. Needless to say, seniors represent a crucial voting bloc. In 2000 they made up about one fifth of those who voted, and favored Gore by 51 to 47 percent.

Of course, if libertarian-minded voters threatened to abandon the GOP over Bush's support for a constitutional amendment, the issue would be far trickier. But no one has shown or even predicted a revolt from soccer moms or liberal Republicans.

The only real disagreement among the pollsters I talked to was the size of the Republican gain on the gay marriage issue. Stuart Rothenberg likened it to a "bunt" or a "sacrifice fly" in a baseball game, while CNN political analyst Bill Schneider said Republicans could maybe pick up a few swing voters.

By contrast, Republican pollsters tend to view the issue as a big winner. Gene Ulm of Public Opinion Strategies believes it will definitely attract many swing voters, especially among the white working class. "In a sense I think what you will see is the revenge of the Reagan Democrat coalition," he said.

How does the Bush campaign view the issue? It's hard to say; officials declined to comment. Currently Bush is portraying his support for a constitutional amendment as a defensive maneuver, not a wedge issue. But it's easy to imagine Bush-Cheney campaign surrogates portraying Democrats as elites hostile to the American family.

Many Democratic strategists find the issue annoying. As well they should. Joel Rogers and Ruy Teixeira pointed out, in America's Forgotten Majority, that "the key for Clinton in 1996 was increased support among working class voters." Indeed, when Democrats get the votes of people like Bill Cain, they usually win. But right now Cain plans to vote Republican, and there's probably nothing the media can do to change that.

Mark Stricherz, a 2003-04 Phillips Foundation fellow, is a writer living in Washington, D.C.