The Magazine

Marriage at the Polls

From the August 30, 2004 issue: Will gay-marriage initiatives give Bush a boost on November 2?

Aug 30, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 47 • By MARK STRICHERZ
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WHEN PHIL BURRESS goes home at night, his phones and doorbell ring long past suppertime. Burress is the chairman of the Ohio Campaign to Protect Marriage, a coalition seeking to put an initiative on the ballot in November that would amend the state's constitution to ban homosexual marriage altogether and domestic partnership benefits for public employees. He took the position in May, and ever since folks have been contacting him at all hours asking to get his petition forms. "I got a knock on the door at 8 the other night from a Muslim who said, 'We want you to help at our [mosque],'" he says wearily. "Everyone is running to get these things."

Burress exaggerates only a bit. From late May to August 3, his group collected 392,000 signatures--a figure initiative groups usually reach only after twice as much time. They needed to obtain signatures from more than 5 percent of registered voters in at least 44 of the state's 88 counties; they ended up getting enough in 79. By early September, they will likely collect another 100,000 signatures, because Ohio law allows groups to do so in the event that some petitions are thrown out. Most observers expect the measure will qualify.

If it does, 11 states will have marriage amendments on the ballot this November. Among them are four states expected to be competitive in the presidential race--Ohio, Michigan, Oregon, and Arkansas. Could the amendment fights in those four states affect the outcome of the presidential campaign? Although not conclusive, the evidence suggests that if there's a second Bush administration, Phil Burress may deserve an invitation to the White House.

Among most election experts, not to mention some Republican operatives, the notion that state ballot initiatives on gay marriage could tip the presidential race is considered fanciful. "With extensive get-out-the-vote efforts from both parties, I don't think these ballot initiatives in the states will make much difference," says analyst Charlie Cook. "If this were 1988, with Willie Horton and Boston Harbor, I could maybe see it, but this election is going to be about the economy, the war on terror, and the war in Iraq."

Perhaps, but recent history suggests otherwise. Since 1968 the "Social Issue" has been a major factor in helping Republicans win six of the last nine presidential elections. When Ben Wattenberg and Richard Scammon coined the term in their 1970 classic The Real Majority, the Social Issue comprised race, crime, and values. Although Bill Clinton helped diminish the importance of the first two, Democrats continue to stumble over values.

John Kerry is not unaware of this history. He has made a point of taking the same public stance on gay marriage as George W. Bush: He's against it. Despite his professed opposition, though, Kerry voted against the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996--an effort by Congress to prevent judges from imposing gay marriage in states that don't want it. A former Democratic pollster concedes the vote could be a vulnerability for Kerry. "It could if it was played up enough against him," says Ken Warren, who now teaches at St. Louis University.

According to a recent Gallup poll, gay marriage ranks near the bottom of voters' top 15 concerns. But that's unlikely to be the case in states with ballot measures on the issue. Ohio may be the state where it matters most. Ohioans have shown intense opposition to the possibility of legalizing homosexual marriage. According to an April poll by the Columbus Dispatch, 78 percent of Ohioans want to ban it--hence, the enthusiasm for Burress's petitions.

The same fervent opposition was evident in the August 3 primary in Missouri, which featured a state constitutional amendment defining marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman. This was the first vote on the issue in the country since the Massachusetts supreme court imposed gay marriage in that state, creating a high-profile national issue in the process. And the vote wasn't close. Almost 43 percent of the state's registered voters cast ballots, shattering the previous mark for a primary of 36.5 percent set in 1992. And the marriage amendment mobilized many of those voters. Nearly 40,000 more Missourians voted on the amendment (1,495,300) than in the gubernatorial primaries (one of which cost Democratic governor Bob Holden his job).