POLITICS MAKES STRANGE BEDFELLOWS. Just ask Rand Paul and Tina Brown.
Two days after President Obama made the dramatic yet unsurprising announcement that he supports same-sex marriage, Paul, Kentucky’s junior senator, joked to an Iowa crowd: “Call me cynical, but I wasn’t sure his views on marriage could get any gayer.” Then Brown, editor in chief of Newsweek, dubbed Obama THE FIRST GAY PRESIDENT on the magazine’s cover, which featured a photo illustration—at least one assumes it wasn’t a straight photo—of the president with a rainbow halo.
Paul’s joke was widely condemned, with the lefties at ThinkProgress.org crowing that “even Tony Perkins” of the conservative Family Research Council found it “unacceptable.” Of course, although Paul and Brown made essentially the same joke, the tone was different. Paul’s jest was mocking, while Brown’s was a sympathetic in-joke. The Newsweek article was written by Andrew Sullivan, who had made “The Case for Gay Marriage” in a New Republic cover story way back in 1989.
Yet if you think about the substance of the joke rather than the tone, Brown’s version was worse, or at least was representative of something worse. Paul, it seems safe to say, was expressing the views of the majority of his constituents, nearly 75 percent of whom voted in favor of a 2004 amendment to the state constitution affirming the traditional definition of marriage. Politicians are supposed to take sides on questions of public policy.
News reporters are not. To be sure, Sullivan is an opinion writer, and one can reasonably argue that Newsweek long ago gave up any pretense of delivering straight news. But in the coverage of Obama’s same-sex marriage announcement, it was striking how much even reporters seemed to have abandoned evenhandedness to propagandize on one side of a divisive social issue.
The most interesting aspect of this propaganda was that it sought to deliver two contrary messages: that Obama’s declaration was a great act of courage, and that it entailed no political risk. Consider this piece from the New York Times, datelined Charlotte, North Carolina:
On Tuesday, the voters in this state went to their polling stations and, by a landslide margin, elected to join the voters in 30 other states in enshrining a ban on same-sex marriages in the State Constitution. The next day, President Obama, perhaps buoyed by repeated polls showing support for same-sex marriage nationally, announced his personal support for it.
And in the days after that, people here and elsewhere concluded that, when November rolls around, this public disagreement between the president and a large majority of voters in this state on a burning social issue will not make much difference at all.
“People here and elsewhere”—that covers pretty much everyone, doesn’t it?
It’s true that a series of opinion polls have shown a plurality or even a slight majority of Americans Favoring same-sex marriage. There is little doubt that public opinion has become more accepting of the idea in recent years. But there is also good reason to think that these polls are systematically overestimating support for same-sex marriage.
Same-sex marriage has lost in every state—more than 30—where the question has been put to the voters. Granted, those were mostly socially conservative states. But even voters in liberal ones—California, Maine, and Oregon—opposed the idea, albeit by narrow margins. Perhaps by now some socially liberal states have tipped and would vote in favor. But if liberal states are closely divided on the question and conservative states are overwhelmingly against, there’s no way that can add up to a nationwide majority in favor.
In North Carolina, the Times noted, “it came as a surprise to many on both sides that the vote was so decisive.” A March poll by Elon University had found that Tar Heelers opposed the amendment preventing same-sex marriages and other unions, 60 percent to 32 percent. The actual vote essentially inverted those numbers: 61 percent for, 39 percent against.
What accounts for the disparity between opinion surveys and actual plebiscites? My hypothesis is that the media’s vicious treatment of gay-marriage opponents intimidates some into concealing their true view when polled. A reader of my online Wall Street Journal column, who asks to remain anonymous, makes the point vividly:
With a marriage amendment on the ballot in Minnesota, we have been assaulted by the progay- marriage media and social-media coverage. I say assaulted, because the message is not a positive argument for gay marriage, but rather a tarring as bigots of those who believe in the traditional definition of marriage. So of course polls would undercount support for the traditional view of marriage.
A person could tell a pollster that he believes in a position and risk the pollster thinking that he is bigoted, or he could toe the media line, give the pollster a fulsome answer of support, and then vote his conscience privately.
I know what I do (and anything more public than this e-mail could risk my career).
Yet if you look carefully at the polls, you can find indications of doubt. “Six in 10 Say Obama Same-Sex Marriage View Won’t Sway Vote,” read Gallup’s headline for a survey released a few days after the Obama announcement. In truth, it will probably sway the votes of a lot fewer than 4 in 10. The poll found that 24 percent of Democrats said they were more likely to vote for Obama, and 52 percent of Republicans less likely. One can discount their answers as expressions of approval or disapproval rather than realistic estimates of the probability of their voting differently, which was already close to zero. (On the other hand, it’s possible the strikingly higher Republican number portends a bigger turnout.)
BUT IF THE PRESIDENTIAL election is close, the issue needn’t change the minds of large numbers of voters in order to prove important or even decisive. Gallup’s findings suggest that it is considerably more likely to sway voters against Obama than for him. Among Democrats, 10 percent said they were less likely to vote for him, while only 2 percent of Republicans said they were more likely. And 23 percent of independents said less likely, and just 11 percent more likely.
In the same poll, 51 percent of all respondents said they approved of same-sex marriage; only 45 percent disapproved. That may reassure Obama supporters, but it ought to unsettle them instead. Even in a sample professing unrealistically high support for same-sex marriage, Obama’s backing seemed to be more harmful to him than beneficial.
Indeed, a week after Obama’s announcement, a New York Times poll found Mitt Romney ahead of the president, 46 percent to 43 percent. That survey’s findings on same-sex marriage were more believable than those of other recent polls. Respondents op posed it, 51 percent to 42 percent, though a majority ac cepted either marriage or nonmarital civil unions when the latter was offered as an alternative.
The Times’s headline finding was that an overwhelming majority of respondents, 67 percent, thought the president backed same-sex marriage “mostly for political reasons,” while only 24 percent thought he did it “mostly because he thinks it is right.” Obama seems to have managed the neat trick of looking like a cynical opportunist while embracing an unpopular position.