“There is no reason to think [gay marriage] should be less potent of an issue in 2008 than in 2004,” said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. “It is an issue that could cause further problems with those voters whom Obama is already having trouble – white working class voters.”
Those who believe same-sex marriage could once again emerge as a polarizing issue in the presidential race note that the landmark November 2003 Massachusetts high court ruling legalizing gay marriage also took time before crystallizing as the most divisive social issue in the 2004 presidential race.
In the weeks following that court decision, some social conservatives even worried that President Bush would not sufficiently defend “traditional marriage.” By February, though, after San Francisco began issuing marriage licenses to gay couples, President Bush announced his support for a constitutional amendment to ban it.
This year, social conservatives are again pushing to turn same-sex marriage into a hot-button social issue. Family Research Council President Tony Perkins hosted a panel in Washington Thursday on “the national implications of the [California] ruling and on the plans to repel this assault on marriage and the family.”
Perkins was joined by Ken Blackwell, who served as Ohio’s secretary of state in 2004. Ohio was one of 11 states to pass a same-sex marriage ban that year. This year, it’s possible that two of the most populous states—Florida and California—could have same-sex marriage measures on the ballot in November.
Some Washington analysts believe gay marriage has dulled as a wedge issue, pointing to the subdued public response to the May 15 California ruling, rising worries about the economy, and stylistic and ideological differences between the Bush and presumptive Republican nominee John McCain.
Others say that the current political landscape has altered the issue environment.
“The difference this time is also that the Republicans are on the defensive so wedge issues work less,” pollster John Zogby said.
Karlyn Bowman, a public opinion researcher at American Enterprise Institute, said there may be a public “exhaustion” with the debate over gay marriage.
But polling suggests there’s been no large drop off in voters concerns over gay marriage between 2004 and today. A report released Thursday by The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press reported that 28 percent of voters view the issue as “very important in their decision about who to vote for in the fall,” only a slight decline from 32 percent in October 2004.
Today, as in 2004, gay marriage ranks at the bottom of the list of voter concerns. But as with abortion, polling has long shown that those opposed to same-sex marriage are most likely to vote on the topic.
“I’ve heard it said a hundred times, Democrats always say social issues have gone away and they never do. They have not gone away since 1968,” said Ben Wattenberg, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who has studied the role of social issues in American politics since the late Sixties.
Just as the Bush campaign pushed the debate in 2004, it might be McCain who determines whether or not gay marriage resurfaces as a salient issue in 2008.
One McCain adviser said the campaign has not yet decided how to handle the issue in the coming general election. The adviser said they expect the economy and the war in Iraq to be at the forefront of voter’s minds.
McCain’s measued response to the California court ruling seemed to signal that same-sex marriage will not play a prominent role. But if his campaign does go in that direction, there are enough differences between the candidates’ positions to draw stark contrasts.
A debate over gay marriage could help McCain shore up the GOP’s social conservative base. It also might aid McCain’s effort to pigeonhole Obama as a traditional liberal on social issues.
McCain and Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton oppose legalizing gay marriage and argue that civil marriage should be left to the states. But the McCain campaign said that “should the courts overstep their authority,” a McCain administration would support a marriage amendment to the Constitution “to restore the balance of power.”
Obama, the Democratic front-runner, calls for civil unions conferring identical or similar legal status for gay couples; McCain does not. McCain supports the current “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in the military but Obama believes gays should be able to openly serve. Clinton’s views closely resemble those held by Obama.
The politics of same-sex marriage have been vexing to Democrats in recent years. The 2004 exit polling showed that some of the Democrats’ most loyal constituencies--minorities and particularly black and Hispanic women--are the strongest opponents of same-sex marriage.
“If the two candidates’ are put in the position of publicly defending their position on gay marriage, they make the issue salient beyond the states that are having referendums,” said Charles Franklin, a University of Wisconsin political scientist.
“It will not have a gigantic effect but an effect at the margins and among moderates and independents,” he said. “Therefore, if it’s having an impact at the margins among these more malleable voters, there is reason for Democrats to be concerned about the issue and it ultimately throws this back into the political arena.”