The Magazine

Barack Hussein McGovern

The specter of 1972 is haunting the Obama ­campaign.

Aug 20, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 45 • By MARK STRICHERZ
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In another crucial swing state, -Virginia, analysts say that Obama’s support for gay marriage hurts his reelection bid. Forty-nine percent of voters said they disapprove of gay marriage while 42 percent said they approve of it, according to a June Quinnipiac poll. Steven J. Farnsworth, professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, estimates that the president’s stance will cost him one or two percentage points in the Old Dominion this fall. “On balance, his position on gay marriage is a negative, but it’s not a big negative,” he says.

In other swing states, pollsters have not examined voters’ attitudes toward gay marriage in the depth that Quinnipiac did in Florida. Even so, most polls in these states have found the public cool to Obama’s position. In Ohio, 50 percent of voters reject gay marriage and 37 percent support it, according to a Public Policy Polling study in July. In Iowa, 45 percent of voters disapprove of gay marriage and 44 approve, according to a May PPP poll. In Wisconsin, 47 percent of voters reject gay marriage and 43 percent back it, according to a PPP survey in July.

Perceptive analysts concede these numbers likely overstate the level of public support for gay marriage because of voters’ tendency to tell pollsters the most socially acceptable answer on the phone and do the opposite at the ballot box. “You can’t say for sure. Certainly in Maine, it looked like [an effort to repeal the state’s gay marriage law] would go down to the wire, and gay marriage lost,” says Todd Eberly, a professor of political science at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.

In a couple of swing states—Colorado and New Hampshire—pollsters have found either majority support for gay marriage or opposition to repealing it. And Farnsworth believes that Virginia Republicans’ efforts to regulate abortion more strictly will cost Romney one or two percentage points in the state this fall.

Yet pollsters and analysts also say Obama must finesse his support for cultural liberalism. “If you’re not careful, you give the impression that you’re catering to special interests, and that’s a problem in Colorado. Colorado voters think of themselves as centrists,” says Floyd Ciruli, an independent pollster and analyst based in Denver, noting that Obama’s campaign is running an ad that accuses Romney of opposing abortion in the event of rape or incest.

Obama is running the same ad elsewhere, but unless he can seize on a Romney misstep on abortion or the Supreme Court decides suddenly to chuck Roe v. Wade, he is more likely to be hurt than helped by his pro-choice stance. Consider a Gallup survey from May 2008. In looking at voters’ attitudes toward abortion in the five presidential elections from 1984 to 2000, Gallup concluded that “the issue netted the Republican party’s candidate two to three points in [each] election.”

Of course, Republican presidential candidates have also run ahead of ordinary voters; as a supporter of Paul Ryan’s entitlement-busting budget blueprint, Romney runs this risk. Yet the Democrats’ nominees have been consistently more likely to do so. As Eberly concluded in a report for Third Way earlier this year, “one reason Democrats lose is likely because the folks who set the agenda for the party are more out of step with most of party voters than are the folks who set the agenda for the Republican party.” In fact, Eberly found that the ideological gap between Democratic activists and voters is more than twice that of their Republican counterparts since 1972.

Eberly expects the gap will continue this year. “It’s statistically significant. It’s real. These are very much the people you would think of as Reagan Democrats,” he says. “These Democratic nonactivists really find themselves perched between conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats. They can go either way.” And when Obama becomes the first presidential candidate to declare his support for gay marriage at one of the presidential debates this fall, he cannot expect these voters to go his way on November 6.

Mark Stricherz, Capitol Hill correspondent for the Colorado Observer, is the author of Why the Democrats Are Blue: Secular Liberalism and the Decline of the People’s Party (Encounter Books).

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