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Is Same-Sex Marriage Now A Wedge Issue For Democrats?

gay-marriage

Not very long ago, opposition to same-sex marriage was considered a wedge issue that favored Republicans and helped bring to the polls voters who are more likely to vote Republican. For example, it’s still a commonly held belief that one of the largest catalysts behind George W. Bush’s victory over John Kerry in 2004 was the fact that Ohio, which ended up being the state that put Bush over the top in the Electoral College, fell into the Republican column because of the presence on the ballot that year of a Constitutional Amendment to ban same-sex marriage. The Amendment itself ended up getting 61% of the vote that year, while Bush ended up winning the state by roughly 120,000 votes (meaning that a lot of Kerry voters supported banning same-sex marriage). However, the  conventional wisdom that developed in the wake of the election was that the marriage amendment brought significantly more social conservatives out to vote in Ohio than might otherwise have been the the case, thus putting Bush over the top.

Public opinion on marriage equality has shifted significantly in the past decade, however, and Democrats are hoping that the issue ends up benefiting them this time around:

DENVER (AP) — It wasn’t all that long ago that Republicans used gay marriage as a tool to drive Election Day turnout. But as public opinion on the issue has turned and courts strike down same-sex marriage bans, gay rights is evolving into a wedge issue for Democrats to wield.

“They want to bait Republicans into talking about the issue in a way that ties them to a negative, national Republican brand,” said Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist who hasn’t taken a position on gay marriage. “They need to stir up their base and create outrage.”

But gay marriage, supported by less than one-third of Americans in 2004, is now supported by a solid majority in recent polls, with approval highest among younger voters. Some Republicans believe that mounting public support represents a danger to their party, and they are scrambling to prevent Democrats from using the issue of gay rights in the same way some in their own party did for years.

Consider Pennsylvania, where Democrats have lambasted Republican Gov. Tom Corbett for comparing gay marriage to incest. Facing a tough re-election campaign, Corbett decided this week not to appeal a federal court ruling striking down the state’s ban of gay marriage.

Or Colorado, where Democratic Sen. Mark Udall is hitting his Republican challenger for casting votes that denied gay people protection from discrimination. In Arizona, Democrats plan to hammer Republican legislators who passed a law allowing businesses to refuse to serve gays for religious reasons.

“We’re just beginning to see this, and we will see a lot more in the midterms,” said Richard Socarides, an activist who was President Clinton’s adviser on gay rights. “It will be an incredible shift by the time we get to the (presidential) election in 2016.”

That election will arrive 20 years after Republicans in Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibited federal recognition of same-sex marriage. President Bill Clinton signed the bill defensively, worried the GOP would use it as a campaign issue, Socarides said. Republican activists put anti-gay marriage initiatives on the ballot in 11 states in 2004, helping President George W. Bush win re-election with the support of conservative religious voters motivated to turn out to support the bans.

Connie Mackey, head of the conservative Family Research Council’s Political Action Committee, said that’s still a solid strategy. Voters still oppose gay marriage, she argued, and Republicans should not let themselves get faked out by overconfident Democrats.

“The people in the states think one way and the establishment and the courts are showing a different face,” Mackey said.

But gay marriage, supported by less than one-third of Americans in 2004, is now supported by a solid majority in recent polls, with approval highest among younger voters. Some Republicans believe that mounting public support represents a danger to their party, and they are scrambling to prevent Democrats from using the issue of gay rights in the same way some in their own party did for years.

“They want to bait Republicans into talking about the issue in a way that ties them to a negative, national Republican brand,” said Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist who hasn’t taken a position on gay marriage. “They need to stir up their base and create outrage.”

What Madden describes here, of course, is traditional wedge issue politics, and it really isn’t any different from the way Republicans used the same-sex marriage issue in the past. The question now is whether Democrats might successfully be able to use the issue themselves, especially in swing states and swing districts. Looking at the issue in detail, the answer seems somewhat ambiguous.

On the surface, the argument that support for marriage equality is an issue likely to help Democrats at the polls seems fairly persuasive. Majority support for same-sex marriage rights has been above 50% for several years now and only seems to be increasing with every new poll on the matter. At the polls, voters in states ranging from Washington to Maryland have voted in favor of same-sex marriage, and elected representatives in other states have voted it into law or made the decision not to challenge adverse court rulings on the issue. Even inside the Republican Party, there has been a desire to create some distance from the issue, most notably seen in the move by the Nevada Republican Party to completely remove opposition to same-sex marriage from the party platform. Polling has also shown that nearly every demographic group except the oldest Americans, and all political and ideological groups with the exception of conservatives/Republicans, supports marriage equality by ever increasing margins.  Given all of this, it’s easy to conclude that Republicans are on the wrong side of this issue and that Democrats could use it as a wedge issue in close elections.

When you look at the issue more closely, though, there are several reasons to doubt how effective a wedge issue marriage equality will actually be in elections where it might actually matter.

First of all, as I noted last week while marriage equality is an issue where voters tend to side with Democrats over Republicans, it also tends to be very far down the on the list of importance for most voters. The issues that tend to motivate voters the most, such as the economy and taxes, are ones where Republicans tend to do better with voters than Democrats. Given the relatively low priority that voters attach to the marriage equality issue, it’s not at all clear that many voters are going to use it as a basis for deciding who to vote for in a General Election. Second, those voters for whom marriage equality is an important enough issue to determine who they’re going to vote for are unlikely to vote Republican to begin with. Third, it’s unclear at this point how much this issue even matters in Congressional and Senate elections given the fact that the Supreme Court has struck down the Defense of Marriage Act’s most egregious provisions and that further Congressional action on the issue is entirely unlikely. Finally, it has become apparent in the eleven months since the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Windsor that this issue is more likely than not to be decided in the courts long before there’s time for political action in most of the United States. By next month, there will be lawsuits challenging same-sex marriage bans pending in every state in which it is still illegal. Many of those lawsuits have already reached the Circuit Court of  Appeals level, and several of those have already been briefed and argued. We’re at most only months away from the first round of Circuit Court opinions on this issue and, from there, the next step is the Supreme Court. At this pace, there are likely to be several cases ready for the Court’s consideration during the term that begins in October. For the moment at least, then, there is the perception that the Courts are “handling” this issue, and that is likely to lead many people who otherwise support marriage equality to believe that it isn’t a politically urgent issue in the upcoming midterms.

Of course, even if the Supreme Court does eventually issue a decision that results in the end of same-sex marriage bans nationwide, that is unlikely to end the political debate that this issue has created. In that case, though, the issues will shift away from marriage equality toward questions regarding laws banning discrimination based on sexual orientation and the question of whether people such as wedding photographers ought to be forced to participate in a same-sex wedding ceremony if they don’t wish to be a part of it for religious reasons. Those are murkier issues both legally and politically, though, and it’s unclear who will benefit from that debate. As far as marriage equality goes, though, I tend to doubt that Democrats will see much short-term benefit from their support of the issue.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. C. Clavin says:

    The answer is no because Democrats are, for some reason, unable to capitalize on their strengths.
    Foreign Policy, Economics, Health Care, Marriage Equality…name the topic.
    Democrats should be mopping the floor with Republicans on every single issue…because Republicans have simply lost their way and are currently on the wrong side of everything.
    But it won’t happen. I don’t know why.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 2

  2. gVOR08 says:

    This is what makes me weep:

    The issues that tend to motivate voters the most, such as the economy and taxes, are ones where Republicans tend to do better with voters than Democrats.

    Republican econ policy has been shown to hurt the economy and won’t help anyone outside the 1% personally. A clear majority want taxes raised on the rich. The significant difference between the parties is that the Rs won’t raise taxes on the rich. So on what basis does anyone outside the 1% decide Rs are better on taxes and econ? Rhetorical question. Obama is prez, the economy is not good, so it’s a protest against O, when it should be a protest against the Rs in congress.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 2

  3. C. Clavin says:

    @gVOR08:

    So on what basis does anyone outside the 1% decide Rs are better on taxes and econ?

    On the basis of being dupes incapable of thinking for themselves.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 2

  4. Anonne says:

    The Republicans control the messaging. Even to so-called Liberal Media is forced to produce false equivalences that cloud what is really going on. Look at the Sunday Morning tv shows. They are loaded with Republicans, why? In the name of a false “balance.”

    Add to it the dumbification of America on top of a general apathy in the electorate, and you have a perfect storm for bad policies to continue propagating themselves.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  5. C. Clavin says:

    @C. Clavin:
    Oh my….Look what that weak incompetent lead from behind President has done now …
    http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/5/23/iaea-iran-uranium.html

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  6. Moosebreath says:

    @Anonne:

    “Look at the Sunday Morning tv shows. They are loaded with Republicans, why? In the name of a false “balance.””

    That’s not it. If they were looking for balance, then the guests would be roughly 50-50, instead of a strong majority Republican. The networks know the demographics of their audience leans old and conservative, and determine the guest list accordingly.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  7. gVOR08 says:

    @Anonne: @Moosebreath: True. Also the media are part of the This Town DC cocktail party circle jerk, which seems to still lean heavily GOP. You’re dead on with “so-called Liberal Media”. I often call it the SLMSM, supposedly liberal main stream media. But I think it’s more accurate to use the older term “establishment press”. The reporters may lean liberal, but the ownership is .01% all the way.

    Years ago J. K. Galbraith had a line to the effect that being an apologist for the wealthy always pays better than crusading for the truth.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  8. James in Silverdale, WA says:

    No because the issue is about ready to be settled for the ages. Once that happens, there’s no “there, there” to be “fighting for.” People who want to get married are not, on balance, going to continue “the fight” once they are permitted to marry in their state.

    It will always be a wedge issue for the GOP because so much of the base sees zero compromise on this issue, and many others.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  9. stonetools says:

    No, because Democrats are lousy at the kind of disciplined and coherent messaging strategy need to make the wedge issue strategy. They just can’t consistently whip up the passion necessary to move voters to the polls. Above all, there is no liberal equivalent of the right wing BS machine that drove millions of conservative voters to the polls to the 2004 convinced that to allow same sex marriage would mean the end of American civilization as we know it.
    Our “machine” consists of a bunch of earnest young bloggers with charts and “balanced” analysis. That may work for voters like us, but it won’t drive the masses to the polls.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  10. Grewgills says:

    Given the relatively low priority that voters attach to the marriage equality issue, it’s not at all clear that many voters are going to use it as a basis for deciding who to vote for in a General Election. Second, those voters for whom marriage equality is an important enough issue to determine who they’re going to vote for are unlikely to vote Republican to begin with. Third, it’s unclear at this point how much this issue even matters in Congressional and Senate elections … that further Congressional action on the issue is entirely unlikely.

    Every one of those arguments in reverse was true in 2004, yet it worked as a strategy then. Much the same can be said for abortion and most other wedge issues, that is how wedge issues work.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  11. Grewgills says:

    @C. Clavin:
    Wow, engagement works… SHOCKING! Next you will try to tell me something stupid, like our engagement policy with China has worked out better than our non-engagement policy with Cuba.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0