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Will Gay Marriage Hurt Obama with African Americans?

11:05 AM, May 18, 2012 • By JAY COST
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Since Obama’s flip flop on gay marriage earlier this month (he supported it in 1996, before opposing it for 8 years starting in 2004), there has been a lot of talk about whether he will lose support with African Americans in the fall. African American voters, after all, are both a core Democratic constituency and pretty strong opponents of gay marriage. So, will the president pay a price?

Obama kissing baby

To answer this question, we have to understand the nature of the African American vote in this country, since it differs substantially from the way pretty much every other group functions. African Americans are the only demographic group in the nation that votes in virtually uniform fashion for one side over other, come rain or shine. The Republican party is simply not an option, voting numbers suggest, which means that the Democratic party is the only vehicle for their political aspirations.

What this means, in turn, is that when the Democratic party ignores some of their opinions, those opinions simply go unrepresented in the body politic.

This is actually a pretty regular occurrence in Democratic party politics, as I explain in my new book, Spoiled Rotten: How the Politics of Patronage Corrupted the Once Noble Democratic Party and Now Threatens the American Republic.

Their leadership class in Congress has basically cut a deal with other factions of the party that goes something like this: In exchange for support on issues that are important to their community, most members of the Congressional Black Caucus will usually vote with the feminists, the unions, and so on, even if those votes cut against their constituents’ interests.

There are exceptions, of course, most notably the revolt of about half the CBC on the 1994 crime bill; nevertheless, on issues like abortion, school choice, and … yes … gay marriage, the CBC votes with the labor-liberal alliance. And their constituents at home do not object.

And so, Obama does not need to worry about the African American vote swinging Republican. That simply will not happen. Because roughly 90 percent of the African American electorate votes Democratic, the president is bound to receive this level of support from them in November, despite the gay marriage flip-flop. That is just the way it goes.

But Obama has a challenge here nevertheless. In 2008, the president won 95 percent of the black vote, as opposed to about 90 percent for Gore and Kerry. What’s more, African Americans turned out at a much higher rate than they had in previous cycles, clocking in at 13 percent of the total electorate rather than the 11 percent of turnout they had generated in earlier years. This means that Obama won more than just the core Democratic vote – he also picked up a solid chunk of the black Republicans and typical non-voters supported him. All told, his extra haul with the African American vote in 2008 accounted for about 40 percent of his total victory margin over John McCain.

And this is where his flip flop on gay marriage might hurt. The roughly 10 percent of the African American population that does not count itself a Democratic constituency might swing back to the GOP this cycle, in part because of gay marriage (though, there might be other reasons, too: the economy, namely). That would cost Obama votes. Ditto if usually non-voting African Americans decide to stay home; Obama convinced many of them to head to the polls in 2008, but he might have trouble doing that again.

I’m not predicting that this will happen. Indeed, I suspect that the whole “will he or won’t he” on gay marriage was mostly a stage act – the best time for the president to flip flop on the issue would be now, so he could collect the campaign cash from the gay community in the spring and by November most people will have forgotten about it.

So, I doubt that the White House expects to lose many votes here. But there is a broader issue with Obama and the African American vote: The 2010 midterm found the Republicans moving back up to their long-run average of about 10 percent of the African American vote, and it also showed turnout ticking back down to its historical levels. Additionally, the Gallup weekly poll usually finds Obama closer to the 90 percent support level among African Americans than the 95 percent he pulled in 2008.

In other words, Obama might already have some problems on the margins with the black community, and this gay marriage flip-flop probably will not help.

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