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The Electoral Implications of Obama’s “Evolution” on Same-Sex Marriage

- May 9, 2012

There will be much speculation on what this means for the outcome of the 2012 presidential election.  What will make such speculation even minimally informed and worth paying attention to?  Here’s a guide.

The president’s announcement could affect voters in one or more of three ways:

1) Changing how they feel about gay marriage itself — perhaps even persuading some to support it.

2) Changing how much their own feelings about gay marriage predicts who they will vote for.  A possible hypothesis is that attitudes toward gay marriage will become more strongly related to voter choice, now that the president has stated this position (again) and thereby provided a definitive point of contrast to Romney.

3) Changing whether or how they will vote in November. Perhaps via some combination of #1-2.

So the first task in evaluating speculation is to say, how many of these 4 3 are being discussed?  Using the same numbering, the follow-up questions to ask are:

1) How many people’s feelings about gay marriage would change as a result of the President’s interview?  What is a plausible estimate?  Support for gay marriage has grown by 5 percent in the past 2 years, according to Pew data.  Could the president’s announcement create that much change all at once?  More?  Less?  Why?

2) If same-sex marriage becomes a bigger factor in voters’ minds, that means the president might both lose support among those who oppose gay marriage and gain support among those who favor gay marriage.  If both things happen, which involves more votes?  In other words, what are the net effects?  Moreover, why would the issue of gay marriage remain salient from now until November, despite the host of other issues that could easily outweigh it (such as the economy)?  How many voters are really “single-issue” voters with regard to same-sex marriage, and how many of their votes were really up for grabs anyway?

3) What percentage of people really make the decision about whether to vote based on the candidates’ positions on a single issue?  And what percentage of voters are truly persuadable in terms of the candidate they support?  Why would these voters make a decision about whom to vote based on Obama’s position on gay marriage?  Are these “marginal” voters the kinds of people who are likely to follow the news closely enough to know Obama’s position?  If particular groups of voters might be turned on/off by the president’s announcement, what fraction of the electorate do those voters comprise?  Are those voters located in battleground states?  If so, in what proportion?

My prediction is that, once these factors are put together and doing the math — small changes in attitudes among small numbers of voters, etc., etc. — it’s not likely that Obama’s announcement will be a significant factor in November.  In the meantime, if pundits want to speculate, these are the questions they should ask and answer.