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The electoral ramifications of marriage equality and LGBT rights

Community/Meta Marriage equality

By Jacob Combs

Many a smart head was scratched last week when the White House announced that President Obama will not be signing an employment non-discrimination order before the November election.  They were right to be confused: after all, many Americans believe that such protections for LGBT employees already exist, and when told they do not, voters of all different political and social stripes support such a policy by an almost 3-to-1 margin.

Why, then, did the White House punt?  In an insightful post published yesterday, Towleroad’s Ari Ezra Waldman posits two theories, one based on perceived electoral necessities and another based on the administration’s distaste for executive orders in general.  On the latter claim, Waldman points out, correctly, that progressives should be wary of placing broad unitary power in the executive: an ENDA-like executive order signed by President Obama could easily have been signed back out of existence by a future president.  Of course, there is an important argument to be made that taking such an action is the right move regardless, and it is worth noting that, for any president, an executive order that would revoke protections against discrimination would be an unwise political move.

But it is Waldman’s first theory, the idea that the Obama campaign backed away from the executive order in order to “minimize off-message disruptions,” that I want to dig into a little further.  As he writes:

Any campaign that sees the nondiscrimination executive order as off-message or a disruption is living in 2004, not 2012.  Pro-gay positions simply do not have the kind of negative traction with the broader conservative movement that they once did: anti-gay boycotts are failing; Republicans who vote for marriage recognition are winning primaries, elections, and raising enormous sums of money; majorities support marriage recognition even when survey takers are told that it would mean a “redefinition” of marriage; and schools are becoming more sensitive to identity expression and the needs of LGBT students, to name just a few examples.

This isn’t just a qualitative assertion, it’s quantitative as well.  When asked in a brand-new Pew Research Center poll about their concerns going into the 2012 election, respondents overwhelming placed social issues as their lowest priorities.  On marriage equality, only 28 percent stated that it was be “very important” in deciding who they vote for, and it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to assume that at least some of the 28 percent is composed of people who feel very strongly both in support of and against marriage rights, and would be unlikely to change their minds no matter what Obama (or Romney) did.

Nonetheless, as Jonathan Bernstein points out in the Washington Post, Democratic Senate candidates are for the most part avoiding the issue.  Only two of the Democrats running for non-incumbent seats in the Senate (Elizabeth Warren and Chris Murphy) mention supporting marriage equality on their websites.  That’s not to say the others aren’t in support of the issue, just that they don’t see it as something to be advertised in their campaign messaging.

How do we overcome this disconnect in the Democratic party when it comes to whether or not marriage equality is an electoral liability?  Time will probably have the greatest effect: regardless of the results of the 2012 election, there is little debate as to whether or not the Democratic party will formally endorse marriage equality in 2016.  Many of the stars of the party who are already being named as possible contenders for that election, such as Andrew Cuomo and Martin O’Malley, have strong records in favor of equal rights on the issue.

But this is 2012, and the drubbing of 2010 no doubt looms large in the minds of Democrats.  The party (and Obama in particular) can choose to play it safe for this year, afraid to give conservatives and evangelicals a reason to coalesce behind Mitt Romney.  That’s an understandable way to look at it.  But in 2012, that kind of caution may not be necessary anymore.


  • 1. Sagesse  |  April 19, 2012 at 8:11 am


  • 2. Derek Williams  |  April 19, 2012 at 8:21 am

    Controversial bills like this should always go to Congress.

  • 3. Jamie  |  April 19, 2012 at 8:42 am


  • 4. Derek Williams  |  April 19, 2012 at 9:04 am

    In America and most of the world, a very large percentage of the population devoutly and sincerely believe that homosexuality is always grievously wrong, and that therefore discrimination against homosexuals is morally right and justifiable. They don't see themselves as arbitrary haters, and until an irrefragable majority of these hearts and minds are won, the nation won't wholeheartedly embrace it.

    Passing a law from the top with a presidential wave of the hand, without any Congressional assent, and without public education is short term thinking and won't achieve compliance. Without public debate, crucial information is buried. Public and parliamentary debate gives us the best opportunity to present our case for equality. If you cannot be bothered educating and winning over the public, the public will remain uneducated and will find an abundance of ways to express their hate covertly.

    If we sincerely believe we are neither depraved nor disordered, then we should not lack the courage to articulate our case ardently and transparently before the Congress and thereby the People.

    If 'only' the President appears to support us, and has to go behind the backs of Congress in order to foist a bill they won't pass on a nation still deeply divided on homosexuality, then not only will his royal decree be revoked by an incoming Republican president, the royal prerogative itself will be diminished in power.

    I use the term 'royal' advisedly.

  • 5. DaveP  |  April 19, 2012 at 8:31 am

    The good news is that many prominent Republicans are ALSO becomeing hesitant to the push ANTI-gay side of these types of issues lately. As poitned out on Rachel Maddow last night, Mitt Romney was in North Carolina yesterday – the day before early voting started on their anti-gay Amendment One, and yet he said nothing about it at all. He's said PLENTY of anti-gay stuff in the past but now that the primary is over and he has to win the votes from the whole country, he's quickly shaking the etch-a-sketch and changing his stance on these polarizing issues.

    Yes, simply saying nothing after saying lots of bad stuff is certainly not a change of heart, but it indicates that he knows it's politically unwise to continue spewing homophobic rhetoric because the public opinion is changing….

  • 6. Ray in Sacramento  |  April 19, 2012 at 9:05 am

    I believe politican's like Romney who have made anti-LGBT remarks in the past become silent hoping that by election time in November the American public will forget that they made such statements. Well I still remember a lot of negative statements on various issues made by present and past politicans in years past and they definitely play a part in how I vote. They must think the American public is stupid.

  • 7. NancyH  |  April 19, 2012 at 8:58 am

    Marriage equality is the only way this country can be saved from the oppressive right-wing agenda. Children born to same-sex couples are our only hope.

  • 8. Jim  |  April 19, 2012 at 9:33 am

    Actually Ray, most of the American voting public is stupid and uniformed. By becoming silent, hoping that the American public will forget has worked in the past and I'm sorry to say will continue to work with the majority of uniformed, not directly affected americans.

  • 9. nightshayde  |  April 19, 2012 at 9:51 am

    "…that kind of caution may not be necessary." "MAY" is a very significant word there. It may not be necessary, but it may be necessary. I think erring on the side of caution right now is probably the safest bet even though we progressives may feel as if our wants are being put on the back burner. Just as Romney has to shake his etch-a-sketch to appeal to more moderate voters, Obama has to have the same concerns. He was fortunate in that he didn't have to make a shift to the left in the primary season before moving back to the middle to court moderates. As always happens in the general election, both sides are backing away from the more polarized base (since Dems know they'll get the progressive votes & Republicans know they'll get the conservative votes) and trying to appear as moderate as possible in order to claim a majority of independents.

    One thing I'm hoping for is that the wingnut evangelicals who were so rabidly pro-Santorum (which still floors me since he's Catholic – but whatever) will stay away from the voting booth entirely this November rather than holding their noses & voting for Romney. If they stay away, it's good news for Democrats running for offices other than the Presidency. I've heard the theory (possibly even on this site) that Santorum being out of the race is good news for the pro-equality side in North Carolina. Perhaps some of the most rabid pro-discrimination forces won't bother coming out to vote at all since they know their guy isn't gonna be the Republican nominee & because they won't bother to come out to vote for Romney.

  • 10. bayareajohn  |  April 19, 2012 at 10:50 am

    I know he's not our guy, but it's still good form to spell the Republican Nominee's name right in articles.See graph 4, "(or Romeny)"

  • 11. Jacob Combs  |  April 20, 2012 at 6:23 am

    Oops–not intentional at all, of course. Just fixed it. Thanks.

  • 12. Glenn I  |  April 19, 2012 at 11:39 am

    "On marriage equality, only 28 percent stated that it was be 'very important' in deciding who they vote for"

    I don't recall that number ever being very high, even in the midst of the biggest anti-equality ballot fights. Does anybody else?

    My point is, hating the gay doesn't have to be your top priority; if it's the 10th priority of you & 70% of the rest of the voters, the hate will still win out.

  • 13. Eric  |  April 19, 2012 at 12:44 pm

    Let's not forget that Obama had no problem firing 435 lesbian and gay groups, because of their sexual orientation.

    He also has no problem issuing executive orders to execute American citizens on foreign soil, without any judicial review.

  • 14. Eric  |  April 19, 2012 at 12:46 pm

    That should read lesbian and gay troups.

  • 15. Derek Williams  |  April 19, 2012 at 2:18 pm

    What evidence do you have of this? I can't locate anything about this anywhere. Was this after DADT Repeal, and solely because the servicemen and women were lesbian or gay?

    That makes no sense to me for the President to dismiss people for no other reason than that they are homosexual, while at the same time he is spectacularly repealing DADT.

    Please post a link to your evidence that the President personally sacked 435 military personnel in the full knowledge of and solely because of their homosexual orientation.

  • 16. Eric  |  April 20, 2012 at 8:27 am

    The commander-in-chief has the authority to issue stop loss orders, pardons, and defer discharges until after the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have concluded.

  • 17. Derek Williams  |  April 20, 2012 at 8:32 am

    In answer to my question above, what hard evidence of LGBT sackings by President Obama do you have please?

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