On October 27, 2010, President Barack Obama famously said that his opinion on marriage equality for same-sex couples was “evolving.” As Joe Sudbay pointed out recently at the Huffington Post, it’s been 500 days.
It was an odd thing to say at the time. Having already reversed his position once (between the time he entered politics and the time he began running for President), activists for LGBT organizations interpreted this as coded language, a hint that he was on their side and would eventually say so.
As Darwin noted, evolution is a painfully slow process. On February 23, Jonathan Capehart (Washington Post) and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) got into a contentious give-and-take on Morning Joe on MSNBC. When confronted with Christie’s (and many Republicans’) favorite dodge, that he and the president agreed on the issue by favoring civil unions but not full equality, Capehart again repeated the “evolving” line. To a person, everyone on the Morning Joe set laughed out loud. Liberal and conservative, it didn’t matter. It was hilarious to everyone.
That’s because the “evolving” dodge is so transparently vacuous and political. No one reading this (and certainly no one on the set of Morning Joe that day) seriously believes that the President has spent 18 months in almost constant, torturous reflection on the matter. No, rather, the president’s position is a matter of (un) intelligent design. It is an artifice, entirely constructed for the purpose of evasion. Everyone on that MSNBC set—and most political observers with IQ’s greater than a rock’s—assume, rightly I think, that one of two conditions is true. Either the president does not support marriage equality, but is afraid to say so for the risk of alienating the support of gays and lesbians, young people, and social liberals; OR the president does support marriage equality but has made a political calculation that it’s an electorally costly position.
All of which begs the question of when evolution will reach its fruition. When will the new species homo support-us emerge at the White House?
I won’t pretend to have privileged knowledge of the president’s mind on this (or anything for that matter). I cannot know what he truly believes. But I believe this contrived position is unintelligent because it is an inevitable train-wreck in the making. Jim Messina, David Axelrod, and the others managing the president’s bid for reelection must surely know that he is going to be asked about it this fall, more than likely in the course of a nationally televised debate, if he doesn’t “evolve” sooner. He will answer in one of three ways. He can say he opposes marriage equality, in which case all the dodging for the last two years with the “evolving” nonsense will have been for naught. This is very unlikely. He can say he is in favor—making big news on a social issue days or weeks before the election. This, too, is unlikely. Or he can still be evolving—again eliciting laughter and disbelief. None of these seems like a winning strategy.
A fourth option, one that could capitalize on the political upside and minimize the political downside of support, would be to finish the evolutionary process soon. In fact, in the context of a raging culture war in which the right appears increasingly intolerant and out of touch with the mainstream, now would be a perfect time to act.
The calculation, here, is between the level of enthusiasm and support the President would receive for reaching the last stage of his “evolution,” weighed against the costs. Some have suggested that marriage equality is arguably not the electoral risk it once was. Polls on this matter have suggested significant movement on the issue. The chair of the Democratic National Convention, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, wants marriage equality in the platform. Since marriage equality or a ban on same sex marriage will be on the ballot in five states this year—all states the president won in 2008 and hopes to again in 2012—a good argument can be made for getting out in front on this issue, rather than “leading” from behind, in order to make sure the net effect is positive on the president’s reelection chances.
Opponents of marriage equality are well-financed and powerful. But for President Obama, fretting about movement conservatives, evangelical voters, and the National Organization for Marriage is silly, of course, since they are unlikely to support the president no matter his views on marriage and have already concluded that he is not on their side on this issue. Rather, cost considerations should be focused only swing electorates, and on groups from which the president draws significant support. Latinos are one such group. Could support for marriage equality hurt the president among Latino voters?
Hardly. For starters, Latinos are far more liberal on marriage equality than stereotypes might suggest. In our November, 2011, benchmark poll for Univision News, we found a plurality of Latinos supporting marriage equality—43%, and another 13% supporting civil unions. Opposition to government recognition of lesbian and gay relationships was only about a quarter, at 26%. The remainder were unsure.
These numbers are not a slam-dunk. Some messaging to Latino voters is required by proponents of marriage equality. But neither do they portend any ominous news for the Obama campaign. More recently, in California, the Field Poll found outright majority support for marriage equality among Latinos in California, at 53%.
Moreover, Latino Decisions has never found social issues—abortion, marriage equality and the like—ever polling more than 2% when registered Latino voters are asked about which issues matter most when they vote. The history of Latino support for Democrats, despite more conservative views on abortion rights, illustrates how little impact such views have on the group’s voting behavior.
The president and his advisors are, no doubt, considering carefully how much evolution is optimal for his reelection. If he chooses to continue espousing this somewhat embarrassing dodge, he does so at the risk of looking foolish or being placed on the spot during the fall campaign. However, there is no evidence that embracing marriage equality will cost him votes among the important Latino voting bloc.
Gary Segura is Principal and Co-Founder of Latino Decisions.