The Obama Watch

You Say You Want An Evolution?

The president will live to regret his premature coming out for gay marriage -- it's all in the polling numbers.

By 5.21.12

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No wonder evolution takes a long time, it brings real consequences. Of course, when the "evolving" we are talking about is Obama's changing position on gay marriage, those consequences are not about natural selection, but November election. And there, evolution's consequences may be just as serious.

Looking at polls now starting to measure the public's reaction to Obama's changed position and you understand why he did not want to be forced to do this prior to Election Day.

For the most part, people do not seem to care. This would appear to be a reprieve for Obama… until you look inside the poll numbers. Those who do care -- i.e., those most likely to take action on his changed position -- do not like it. 

According to the CBS News/NYTimes poll (released 5/14, of 562 registered voters and MOE +/-4.1%), 58% of registered voters said it would have "no effect" on whether they would vote for him. More interesting is the minority who said it would have an effect. Only 16% said it would make them "more likely" to vote for Obama, while 25% said it would make them "less likely." 

USA Today/Gallup's poll (released 5/11, of 1,013 adults and MOE +/-3.1%) showed an even bigger gulf. By 2 to 1, "less likely" prevailed (26% to 13%) among those responding that it would affect their likelihood of voting for Obama. 

A Pew Research Center poll (released 5/14, 1,003 respondents, MOE +/-3.1%) showed the same pattern -- 19% viewed Obama "more favorably," versus 25% "less favorably."

You might say such small differences, among a minority of adults, is not a big deal. However, that difference rippled ominously across the political spectrum in all the polls.

For instance, in the CBS News/NYTimes poll, only 14% of Independents said Obama's decision made them more likely to vote for Obama, while 22% said less likely. Even among Democrats, 12% of them responded that it made them less likely -- and Obama's unfavorable rating among Democrats in this poll was just 7%. 

Worst of all, is how all groups perceived the evolution. When asked "do you think that Obama publicly supported same-sex marriage mostly because he thinks it is right, or mostly for political reasons?" the verdict was decidedly in favor of political reasons. 

 By roughly 2 to 1 (67% to 24%), respondents felt politics prevailed. Even the majority of Democrats so perceived it (48% to 42%), while Independents broke this way 70% to 20%. 

There are several lessons to take from these early poll results -- none of them particularly heartening for the White House. 

First, in a tight election, as this one is expected to be, small margins can mean a lot. 

Second, these small margins are not simply limited to one group of voters -- i.e., Republicans -- who Obama could have written off anyway. Independents and even some Democrats are contributing to them.

Third, the perception of the action is strongly seen as political. That means Obama may get only limited credit for it -- even from those who support it -- while still retaining full blame from those who oppose it. The perception of it as politically motivated may well explain the net negative impact among those who say the Administration's change of position may influence their vote. 

These are not the political results one wants from a policy decision in any race, but particularly less than six months away from one that is as close as this one is. It's hardly surprising that the Administration did not want to have to make it now. If Obama should lose in November and people are trying to deconstruct why, they may not need to look further than "evolution" to find the missing link.

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About the Author

J.T. Young served in the Department of Treasury and the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2004 and as a Congressional staff member from 1987 to 2000.