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Obama’s gay marriage gamble

Posted: May 17, 2012 11:33 a.m.
Updated: May 18, 2012 5:00 a.m.

As a political issue, same-sex marriage is like playing 3-D chess: Opponents of the idea need to move quickly because the game board is tilting slowly but steadily in favor of the other side.

It is a sign of how far the debate has moved, for example, that conservatives are divided over whether President Barack Obama's support for the idea hurts him or helps him.

Conservative columnist/blogger Michelle Malkin even saw it as part of his re-election strategy, calling it "a campaign finance decision," on Fox News.

Maybe. Fundraisers say the donations began pouring in within minutes of the news Wednesday that, after months of "evolving on the issue," Obama affirmed his unequivocal support for the right of same-sex couples to get hitched.

But how times have changed. Back in 2004, when the gay marriage issue on ballots in Ohio and other battleground states brought out large numbers of religious conservatives and other who favored President George W. Bush, I would not have expected the issue to turn this quickly into a plus for Democrats.

Yet, as we saw in the rise of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" ban on gays in the military in the 1990s and its repeal under Obama, respect for gender equality has grown with remarkable speed over the past two decades. This is particularly true of younger generations, who have not had as much time as their elders for negative stereotypes to settle into their psyches.

Yet Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council took the more conventionally conservative view in an NPR interview, declaring that the president has "handed Mitt Romney the key to social conservative support."

He noted that North Carolina voted by a 20-point margin for an amendment to ban gay marriage and civil unions the day before Obama announced that his views had "evolved" into full support for same-sex marriage. Within that landslide, Perkins pointed out, were some black-majority precincts that supported Obama in 2008 but voted for the anti-gay marriage amendment by "60 percent or more."

That's a looming peril for Obama in his support base. In Obama's political base, African Americans and Hispanic Americans are notable among the most churchgoing and most hostile to the idea of gay marriage.

Yet comparing recent polls with earlier surveys reveals that attitudes in these two important communities are shifting in ways quite similar to those of mainstream non-Hispanic whites, especially among the young.

For example, a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll in March showed African American support for gay marriage has risen to 50 percent from only 32 percent three years ago.

Attitudes vary dramatically by age among all groups, according to Pew Research Center data recently reported by the National Journal. Comparing surveys taken in 2003 and 2004 to new ones in 2011 and 2012, for example Pew found that support among African-Americans aged 18 to 29 rose from 32 percent to 51 percent. As age brackets moved upward, the increase in support became more modest, but even among us black folks aged 50 and up, support almost doubled from a mere 16 percent to a not-quite-as modest 28 percent.((

The surveys turned up similar results among Hispanics, except those older than 50, whose attitudes remain essentially frozen. Their support rose only to 32 percent from 30 percent.((

Even so, patterns of generational attitudes suggest that, just as among whites, support for gay marriage will almost certainly continue to grow in the years ahead. The question for Obama is whether attitudes have changed or will change enough by November to outweigh whatever votes his position may cost him.

One black pastor who illustrates the hold-your-nose view was the Rev. Jamal Bryant of Baltimore's Empowerment Temple. He said on Tom Joyner's radio show that he "absolutely, vehemently" disagreed with the president's decision. Yet he expects to vote for Obama again because, "I think, given the option I've got, which is Mitt Romney, I've got no choice."

Indeed, Obama may have helped presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney to firm up his base with this issue. But with their lack of effective outreach to black and Hispanic voters, Romney and his fellow Republicans are returning the favor.


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