Analysts and pollsters have examined President Barack Obama's unequivocal declaration last week on behalf of same-sex marriage and have been making mainly small-ball, tactical-politics interpretations of its significance.
There are moments and issues when short-term, tactical politics must give way to large considerations. This, in my judgment, was one of those. But, first, the political ins and outs.
The effects of his decision will impact the fortunes of state, local, and congressional candidates this fall as well as Obama's. Where will it matter?
You can begin by assessing national sentiment about gay marriage. It has swung with remarkable rapidity in recent years toward a pro-gay marriage position so that, today, opinion is split about 50-50, pro and con, with many nuances in the views of those supporting and opposing. Then you can examine the map to see where legal barriers still exist toward same-sex marriage. With the passage of such a measure last Tuesday in North Carolina, there are 31 states banning such marriage and 38, altogether, that have restrictions constraining it.
Then you examine the electoral map to gauge opinion in vital swing states that will determine the presidential-election outcome in November. Among those states are several where you can presume that Obama's decision is not likely to help his re-election chances. These include not only North Carolina but also Virginia, Ohio, Florida, Missouri, and Iowa. It will help him in New York, California, Oregon, Washington, and the New England states. But these states were going to Obama in any case. Looking at the overall electoral map, you could conclude that Obama's fall election chances in a few key states might have been hurt marginally by his decision.
But there is the intensity factor as well. How many voters feel intensely enough about gay marriage that it will be the principal factor in their November voting decision? Some gay voters will feel that way; so will some evangelical and other voters who oppose it. But how many, as compared to those principally motivated by traditional economic, national security, and other issues, which do not fall into the category of "social issues?"
My own guess is that, when it comes to such issues, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's Mormonism probably will hurt him more than Obama's endorsement of gay marriage. Romney's Mormonism is a less visible but real issue, ironically, among some of the same evangelical voters who oppose gay marriage. Some analysts believe black voters, many of whom oppose gay marriage, might stay away from the polls because of Obama's position. But, in the end, I doubt that they will.
You can tie yourself in knots trying to figure out the political pluses and minuses, for Obama and Romney, of issues outside the gut economic/national security realm, and be particularly vexed trying to figure out just which matters will motivate more than others.
The only thing we can know for certain is that Obama's decision will energize gay voters who will bring money and energy to his campaign and that many of former Sen. Rick Santorum's GOP supporters, for instance, will be similarly energized to oppose Obama. But, if you think about it, most voters in those categories would have ended up with Obama or Romney, respectively, in any caes.
I suspect candidates at congressional and local level — in places where pro or con sentiment on gay marrriage is especially strong — are more likely to be affected.
There are some issues whose time has come and which demand decisions from those in leadership. Gay marriage, in my judgment, is such an issue.
President Lyndon Johnson, after passsage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act (and again, after passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act), told his staff that he believed the Democratic Party's leadership on these issues would cede what was then the Democrats' Solid South to Republicans for several decades. He was right. But, now, Democrats are competitve again in the same states and regularly win statewide, congressional, and local races.
Voters also make judgments about candidates, by the way, on their character. Especially at a time when voters seek strength and decisiveness in dealing with vital financial/economic and overseas issues, Obama's gay-marriage decision showed him unafraid to make a tough, clear-cut call on something he considers important. That should help more than hurt him among voters doubting him on that basis.