Columns » Jay Barth

Marriage equality's tipping point



At last week's Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, one expected that the Obama campaign would brag to the record number of LGBT delegates about the historic inclusion of a plank in the party platform advocating marriage equality. Yet, because of the continued divisiveness of the issue in the general public, it would have also not been surprising if a prudent Democratic campaign were silent on the issue from the convention podium. Instead, in perhaps the clearest sign to date that the political tipping point has been reached on same-sex marriage, the convention proceedings showed that the national Democratic Party has gone all-in on marriage equality. While, like the president, the country continues to "evolve" on the issue, it's no longer a risky proposition for Democrats to highlight their support for same-sex marriage. Indeed, it may help move key pro-Obama demographic groups to the voting booths in November.

On the first night of the convention, the marriage issue was mentioned by almost every major speaker. But the topic wasn't a single-night event. On the convention's final evening, one speaker focused on the issue and the president himself noted it in his acceptance address.

Particularly interesting was how this array of speakers framed the issue. Most used a libertarian frame, focused on keeping government out of people's private decisions. In several speeches, indeed, it was tied to the women's right to choose. As Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick put it, "We believe that freedom means keeping government out of our most private affairs, including out of a woman's decision whether to keep an unwanted pregnancy and everybody's decision about whom to marry." Polling shows that this frame works particularly well in those parts of the country which are generally conservative but where a real queasiness about "big government" persists. Thus, in some ways, it is the safest frame.

The one speaker to center his remarks on the issue employed a different framing of the issue, however. That was Zach Wahls, the son of Iowa lesbian parents who became a YouTube sensation last year for his exceptional speech to the Iowa legislature considering a state constitutional amendment to overturn the unanimous ruling of the state Supreme Court affirming marriage equality in the state. Wahls who spoke on the last night of the convention. After humanizing the issue (joking that having two mothers had made him "awesome at putting the seat down"), Wahls centered on the fundamental equality at issue in the battle over marriage equality. As Wahls answered the GOP nominee's stance on the issue, "Mr. Romney, my family is just as real as yours."

Finally, First Lady Michelle Obama went a different, bolder direction in her framing of the issue, placing it in the context of the broader, historic battle for a more just America. Towards the close of her speech, Obama said: "... if proud Americans can be who they are and boldly stand at the altar with who they love ... then surely, surely we can give everyone in this country a fair chance at that great American Dream."

When barely half of the American public is supportive of recognizing same-sex marriages, it would seem that so much talk about the issue in so many different ways would be taking a major political risk. However, because most of those opposed to marriage recognition are locked into their votes for the Republican nominee, it means that nearly 80 percent of voters open to voting for the president for re-election are pro-marriage equality. Many of those who continue to be challenged by the issue are either African-American (the most loyal constituents for Obama) or Latino (the one group with whom so much focus on marriage is somewhat risky).

On the other hand, the issue is particularly popular with one key component of the Obama coalition from 2008, which continues to support him but show signs of lowered enthusiasm; the issue moves younger voters whom the party needs to turn out in large numbers. Gallup polling over the past year shows that support for marriage equality among those under 30 exceeds that of the general public by over 20 points.

The Democrat's focusing of so much energy on the issue was neither accidental nor risky; it was smart politics for a campaign focused on November and on a party focused on elections to come.

Comments (7)

Showing 1-7 of 7

Add a comment

Add a comment