President Obama’s announcement yesterday that he personally supports same-sex marriage immediately launched a thousand wishing-makes-it-true political analysis stories arguing that the president just killed his re-election chances by supporting a position over half the country holds. Politico was particularly excited to doomsay on this question, arguing that gay marriage is going to kill Obama’s chances in prominent swing states and taking the dubious position that black voters could abandon the first black president and decades of strong Democratic affiliation to stick it to the gays. Of course, writer Joseph Williams admits in the article that black opposition to same-sex marriage isn’t meaningfully higher than opposition in general, calling into question why such an article even needed to be written.
But the polling data isn’t even the biggest problem with arguments that this can or will hurt Obama’s chances at re-election. You can get a lot of people to tell a pollster that they’re against gay marriage or even think it’s a sin, but that doesn’t really tell you much about how those opinions will affect their vote. Those polls don’t measure how high the issue ranks in a voter’s priority list, and as far as I can tell, few, if any polls adequately measure how much any social position difference with a candidate hurts a voter’s opinion of him. People, especially inconsistent or swing voters, tend to evaluate a candidate like they do people in their lives. For voters who otherwise have a good opinion of Obama but disagree with him on this issue, it’s likely to be rationalized away the same way we do with people in our lives. I hardly think many or most of the voters who voted against gay marriage would reject a friend or loved one for differing with them on this issue, and so supporting a politician they otherwise like despite this isn’t really a big leap.
Obama can also count on voter apathy around gay rights. With the gay rights issue, the don’t-care factor is rising rapidly alongside the open support for same-sex marriage. Which is to say that a lot of people who oppose gay marriage do so in a softer way than before. They will hold on to their belief, but they also see the writing on the wall and are adjusting their commitment to this issue accordingly. They’ll vote against gay marriage in a special election, sure, but they’ve also decided they’re not going to lose any sleep if the courts declare same-sex marriage a right. As Christian writer Rachel Held Evans argues, the sense that this fight isn’t worth it any longer is growing in Christian circles. It’s hard to imagine that weariness getting turned around enough to cause otherwise pro-Obama voters to switch to Romney, or even to stay home rather than vote in an election that is roundly seen as a major milestone in our country’s economic future.