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Will Marriage Equality Be A "Deciding Factor" In 2012 Election?

July 28, 2011 5:57 pm ET by Equality Matters staff

With so much attention being focused on job growth, the debt ceiling, and the economy, it's hard to imagine that same-sex marriage will have a major impact on the 2012 election. In a July 27 article, however, U.S. News & World Report's Mallie Jane Kim argues that marriage equality could become a "politically potent issue" in close races:

Voters who strongly support or strongly oppose same-sex marriage will likely be more apt to get out and vote next year and inspire others to do the same, particularly since several key states are already embroiled in the debate, with battleground state Minnesota adding a gay marriage ban vote to the state's 2012 ballot, and Colorado, another swing state, close to adding a vote to repeal its marriage ban to the ballot, if advocates gather enough signatures.

[...]

Gay marriage advocates believe this means the issue has reached a tipping point and that Republican candidates who are outspoken against gay marriage will face trouble in the general election. "In the past, Democrats supported gay rights but weren't that excited about talking about it," says Richard Socarides, former Clinton adviser and president of Equality Matters, which works for equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. "And Republicans used gay rights issues as a way to energize right-wing base voters." 2012, he says, will be different, "because the Democrats will be using their support for gay rights as an issue to excite their own base, as an issue to generate enthusiasm around Democratic swing voters."

[...]

Despite the fact that all the major GOP candidates oppose gay marriage, the issue has already been a headline grabber on the primary campaign trail. And the fact that New Hampshire's legislature is scheduled to vote on repeal of the state's law allowing gay marriage just before the important first-in-the-nation primary election early next year means that is likely to continue.

If marriage equality becomes a major issue in 2012, anti-gay Republicans will be in an uncomfortable position. In a polling memo released yesterday, top pollsters for Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama argued that support for same-sex marriage will begin to -- as Politico's Ben Smith put it - '"dominate" the political landscape' in the coming years:

The new memo, based on public polling, makes the case that support for same-sex marriage has "accelerated dramatically in the last 2 years" and that the future almost surely belongs to supporters of same-sex marriage.

[...]

They also note a factor that has been increasingly clear to observers of state legislative fights on the subject: Momentum and public interest appear to be shifting in the direction of supporters of same-sex marriage.

"The intensity of opinion is changing at a rapid pace. As of today, supporters of marriage for gay couples feel as strongly about the issue as opponents do, something that was not the case in the recent past," they write.

And they make the case for a kind of demographic inevitability that's at the core of the argument gay rights activists have been making with increasing conviction to political leaders.

"Support strongly correlates with age," Benenson and van Lohuizen write. "As Americans currently under the age of 40 make up a greater percentage of the electorate, their views will come to dominate."

The memo also suggests that President Obama - who has been criticized by many in the LGBT community for dragging his feet on marriage equality - might be able to benefit politically by coming out in support of same-sex marriage before the 2012 election. As Nate Silver wrote back in April, increasing public support for gay marriage is likely to create a kind of "feedback loop," accelerating elected officials' evolution on the issue.

One thing is clear: groups like the National Organization for Marriage and the Family Research Council are losing the battle for public opinion, and their leverage with on-the-fence politicians is likely running out. 

Previously:

Politico's Glenn Thrush: Obama Is "Going To Have To Stake Out A More Concrete Position" On Marriage Equality

Politico: Obama Reelection Campaign "Surprised" By Boost From Gay Donors

Silver: Opposing Marriage Equality Is A Losing Strategy For GOP