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).

Even longtime observers of Missouri politics professed awe at the results. "I was expecting a turnout of 1 million, maybe," says David Webber, a professor of political science at the University of Missouri-Columbia, "but not 1.5 million." From those results Webber deduces that voters in Ohio could react similarly. Voters in both states lean Republican and are socially conservative. Many live in small towns and exurbs, don't belong to unions but do go to church, and tend to be older and working class. Not surprisingly, rejection of homosexual marriage runs deepest among this bloc. According to a late February study by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 45 percent of voters 65 years and older and 40 percent of voters with a high school degree or less said they would not vote for a candidate who supported gay marriage.

In Butler County, in rural southeastern Missouri, voters favored the amendment 8 to 1. According to state GOP spokesman Paul Sloca, in rural Missouri, "there are a lot of close-knit families. They can't even comprehend the idea of two men getting married." Cass County, an exurb south of Kansas City, favored the amendment by nearly 4 to 1. Indeed, although Cass County is a GOP stronghold, more voters there voted to ban gay marriage (20,264) than voted for Bush in the general election four years ago (20,113).

The results have not escaped the notice of Bush advisers. One aide acknowledges that Bush would be particularly helped in southern Ohio. "In the Cincinnati area, in the southwestern parts of the state, people are clearly worried that courts are defining this issue, that they're weakening marriage," he says. A March poll by the Columbus Dispatch backs up his assessment: It found 69 percent of respondents from southeastern Ohio supported an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, while only 55 percent from central Ohio did.

How many Ohioans will be energized by the marriage amendment is hard to say. University of Akron political scientist John Green estimates that the spike in turnout could be 4 to 5 percent, adding another 200,000 votes. That could be hugely significant. In 2000, Bush won Ohio by only 165,000 votes out of 4.7 million cast.

But while the numbers favor Bush in Ohio, other factors work against him in Oregon and Michigan. First, unemployment is higher there; as of July, the figures were 6.9 percent in Oregon and 6.5 percent in Michigan. Bush is trailing by 5 to 8 percentage points in each state, according to the latest polls. In those states, the economy is paramount.

Second, because both states lean Democratic, their voters view the Iraq War more negatively. "The biggest problem is Iraq," says Oregon pollster Tim Hibbitts. "In a different year [gay marriage] could have been a devastating issue, but voters are talking about the economy and Iraq."

However, political observers in those states don't discount the possible significance of the marriage amendments. Should the economy improve and the bad news from Iraq recede, voters there are more likely to make gay marriage a voting issue. "I would not be surprised by a 2 to 4 percent increase in turnout," says Kevin Mannix, chairman of the Oregon Republican party. Michigan pollster Ed Sarpolus sees a different dynamic at work: "The over-50 group is open to Bush on the civil union issue. We don't really know until Kerry stops focusing on commander in chief issues and starts talking in this state about health care, but [the opening] is there."

In Arkansas, Bush may not need an assist. He already leads Kerry there, and many political observers believe Bush will win regardless of the marriage amendment. Still, Cal Ledbetter, an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, estimates the gay marriage issue will draw 5,000 to 10,000 more voters to the polls, especially in the Republican-rich northwestern part of the state.

Where will the Kerry campaign stand on the various state ballot initiatives? There's been no comment. Publicly, Kerry favors banning gay and lesbian marriages at the state level while supporting domestic partnership benefits. The Ohio and Michigan measures don't just affirm traditional marriage--they also ban such benefits.

Still, opponents of the two marriage amendments aren't holding their breath for Kerry's support. Alan Melamed, campaign manager for Ohioans Protecting the Constitution, estimates his campaign would need $3.5 million to $5 million to have a chance of prevailing. "I haven't heard anything" from the Kerry campaign, he says, adding with a laugh: "But if they want to give us a check, we're more than happy to accept it."

Mark Stricherz is a writer living in Washington, D.C.