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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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.