The barely restrained euphoria that erupted after gay marriage marked its first wins at the ballot box in this month’s election overstates the significance of those victories for the future of marriage in the United States, leading social conservatives are saying.
Voters in four states approved same-sex marriage questions on the ballot: Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington. Voters in Maryland and Washington approved gay marriage referenda. In Minnesota, voters turned down a constitutional amendment limiting marriage to couples of the opposite sex while Maine voters reversed a 2009 vote against gay marriage.
It’s the first time that the law on this issue has been changed through the popular vote, rather than a court ruling or state legislation.
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Pundits across the political spectrum have triumphantly declared that gay marriage is now inevitable.
“It’s hard to overstate the national significance of this vote,” Marc Solomon, campaign director at Freedom to Marry, was quoted as saying on CNN.com. “I would guess that 50 years from now, the high school civics books will treat Nov. 6, 2012, as a red-letter day in the history of the gay rights movement,” Harvard law professor and historian Michael Klarman told the New York Times.
Such sentiments were echoed in the Republican camp as well: “The die is cast on this issue,” said Steve Schmidt, a former presidential campaign adviser to Senator John McCain and George W. Bush, in a separate New York Times report.
Or is it?
“While four defeats in one day was disappointing, I don’t think we should exaggerate the magnitude of them,” said Peter Sprigg, a Senior Fellow for Policy Studies at the Family Research Council, in an e-mail interview with Crisis.
He noted that the four states that voted in November were all “liberal, deep blue states.” But the vote nevertheless was a close one. In Maine, a shift of about 35,000 votes would have delivered a win to the other side. In the other three states, the outcome was decided by a range of 80,000 to 100,000 votes out of more than two million cast in each one.
“[T]raditional marriage got 47 to 48 percent of the vote—outperforming the Republican ticket in every state, by margins ranging from 2.5 percent in Minnesota to 11.6 percent in Maryland,” Sprigg said. “If we extrapolate that comparison to the national vote, it suggests that a solid majority of Americans would probably still vote to uphold marriage as the union of a man and a woman.”
“It’s actually a more bipartisan issue than the GOP ticket,” added Thomas Peters, the Cultural Director for the National Organization for Marriage, which led the fight in the four states.
Rethinking the message?
After a stinging national loss, many in the Republican Party, from the national level to the local, are undergoing a bit of soul-searching. Last week, during the annual fall general assembly for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York suggested traditional marriage advocates do the same.
Dolan noted that traditional marriage opponents “caricature us as these mean-spirited, bigoted people who are trying to impose their medieval views upon the rest of society,” according to the Catholic News Agency.
“We’re constantly trying to think how to re-craft our message,” Dolan said, adding that “there might be an analogy here in the pro-life movement.” After pro-choice advocates won public support by framing abortion as a “matter of choice,” Dolan said that pro-life advocates seized a majority of public opinion a generation ago by “questioning what ‘choice was being made” in the abortion procedure,” according to the CNA report.
Sprigg agreed: “We have a challenge to counter the way our viewpoint is caricatured by our opponents, because the media generally accepts their view. Consider, for example, how they adopt the ‘marriage equality’ framing, when what we are really talking about is marriage redefinition. I agree with Cardinal Dolan that we need to communicate that our viewpoint is pro-marriage, not ‘anti-gay’ (especially not against gay people).”
He said traditional marriage supporters also have to shift the scope of the discussion. At issue, he said, is the “institution of marriage” not “individual marriages.” “We have to emphasize that marriage is a public institution because it benefits children and society, not because it benefits individual couples,” he concluded.
Money hurt marriage—not messaging
But Sprigg and Peters said that messaging was not behind election losses for their side.
The National Organization for Marriage (NOM) is “not against refining our message, but this is not our first rodeo,” Peters said.
Rather, it was funding, an earlier start on campaigning, and a superior get-out-the-vote effort that made the difference.
“I think certainly we were financially outgunned by huge margins,” Peters said.
“I think the main problem was not with the content of our messaging, but our difficulty in getting it out because of the financial imbalance,” Sprigg added.
As a result, for every one pro-traditional marriage ad, there were as many as eight for the other side, according to Peters. “There’s no silver-bullet message that can overcome that,” he said.
The imbalance was even greater for get-out-the-vote efforts. In Maine, for every one voter reached by NOM and its allies, ten were reached by gay marriage advocates—with as many as 250,000 voters ultimately reached by the massive door-to-door canvassing and phone banking campaign by the other side. Door to door campaigning not only ensures that the voter is more likely to show up at the polls—it also makes that voter more likely to agree with you, Peters said.
One added advantage: gay marriage groups hit the airwaves with their ads earlier than NOM and others, allowing them to frame the issue for voters before they had heard both sides of the issue, according to Peters.
Big picture: marriage still a winning issue
What was striking about the four-state votes on gay marriage was that they were the first four wins for advocates—after a long string of defeats. As significant as the victories may have been, traditional marriage supporters say their position has a far better track record of winning over the popular vote.
“I do not think this is a losing battle. Forty one states still define marriage as the union of a man and a woman, and 30 do so through their state constitution,” Sprigg said. “Voters in 31 states have rejected same-sex ‘marriage,’ while only three have openly affirmed it. A score of 41-9 or 31-3 is a winning score, not a losing one!”
And just months before the election, one of the marriage amendments passed in North Carolina.
“All the conservative red states have basically settled this issue,” Peters noted.
Next battlegrounds Hawaii to Rhode Island
The likely next battleground states include Hawaii and Rhode Island as well as Illinois, Delaware, and New Jersey.
The states that are being targeted by gay rights activists betray a mistrust of public opinion, according to Peters. As enamored as gay marriage advocates are of their popular vote wins, they’re still not confident the issue is a winner for them at the ballot box, he suggested. “They’re looking at states where they don’t have to worry about same-sex marriage being put on the ballot again,” he said.
Other key battleground states could be Ohio or Oregon, where same-sex marriage advocates may be eyeing an effort to overturn a marriage amendment to those states’ constitutions.
Traditional marriage supporters, on the other hand, are expected to go on the offensive in those states which do not yet have constitutional bans on gay marriage, Peters said. One such state is Pennsylvania, where a proposed state constitutional amendment was stalled in a legislative committee last spring and the most recent poll on the issue shows a slight majority of residents oppose same-sex marriage.
A key bellwether state could be Indiana, where a campaign to pass a state constitutional amendment upholding the traditional definition of marriage is underway. A win for the traditional marriage side “would demonstrate that there has not been a huge momentum swing against us,” Sprigg said.
NOM is also targeting New Hampshire’s same-sex marriage law for repeal.
Given that funding was a weakness this time around, NOM and other traditional marriage groups can be expected to focus on fundraising in the future. Peters expressed confidence that the group would be able to ramp up fundraising efforts. The election, he said, had been a wake-up call to traditional marriage supporters and donors. “I think that wake-up is opening up some doors,” Peters said.
The next Roe v. Wade?
Beyond the next battleground states, the issue of marriage is widely expected to go before the U.S. Supreme Court in its next term—most probably a decision on the constitutionality of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, after two lower courts, in New York and Boston, ruled that it wasn’t.
Could another historically divisive Supreme Court decision be in the works, a la Roe v. Wade?
Sprigg doubts it. “I think even the liberals on the Supreme Court have likely learned the lesson of Roe v. Wade—that the court cannot unilaterally settle a divisive social issue that is not addressed in the text of the Constitution, when the democratic process is already dealing with it. The 9th Circuit decision in the Proposition 8 case stepped back from that brink, with a ruling that would apply only to California. I am hopeful that the federal Defense of Marriage Act will also be upheld, but even if it were to be struck down, it would leave state definitions intact.”
Ironically, electoral victories for gay couples actually could undermine their case before the Supreme Court. The argument against DOMA, Peters said, hinges on the claim that gay Americans are a culturally powerless group that merits protection against discrimination. That claim, however, is now undermined by the obvious fact that this so-called “powerless group” outspent the opposition many times over, he noted.
“That, I think is a fascinating outcome,” Peters said.