Why Obama’s Gay Marriage Stance Won’t Much Matter in November

Both parties are calculating the impact from Obama’s announcement on his reelection chances.

Brendan Smialowski, AFP / Getty Images

Could Barack Obama be the next Patrick Murphy?

Throughout 2010, Murphy, an Iraq War veteran and West Point instructor first elected to the House of Representatives four years earlier, worked tirelessly to convince other moderate Democrats to support his Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal bill. At the same time he was running for reelection in a district that was more conservative on the issue: Pennsylvania’s Eighth, which encompasses the white-ethnic neighborhoods of northeast Philadelphia, the swing-voter suburbs of Montgomery County, the blue-collar towns of Lower Bucks County, and the agricultural areas to the north.

Asked in late October if he was worried that adopting DADT as his signature issue would hurt him politically, Murphy didn’t blink. “Absolutely not," he said. "I took an oath to support and defend the Constitution as an Army officer and as a congressman. I take that oath to heart, and I'm going to fight for the values that are in our Constitution.”

Two weeks later, Murphy lost his seat by 7 percentage points.

Now Republicans are hoping that Obama will suffer the same fate. For a few minutes after the president came out in favor of gay marriage Wednesday, Washington paused to reflect on the historical significance of his announcement. Then it got back to doing what it does best: speculating about something’s so-called political impact (regardless of whether that impact can actually be assessed with the information at hand). In this case the question was whether Obama’s gay-marriage gambit would hurt him with the all-important swing voters who will decide November’s election.

Even Murphy, reached by phone that afternoon, seemed to think it might. “Clearly this is not the most politically popular move with an election six months away,” he told me. “As Bobby Kennedy once said, ‘Change is hard because change has enemies.’ I know the enemies of marriage equality will be mobilized to take the fight to the Philadelphia suburbs.”

Murphy is undoubtedly right. But here’s the thing that all of these salivating GOP strategists—and Democratic worrywarts—may be overlooking: if you actually sit down and try to identify which votes (in which states) Obama is likely to lose over gay marriage, it’s tough to come up with much.

To win reelection, the president doesn’t have to replicate his 2008 blowout. He just needs 270 electoral votes—95 fewer than he racked up four years ago. Team Obama sees five ways to get there, as I reported in January. The West Path would add Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada to the Kerry states, for 272 electoral votes. The Florida Path would add just Florida, for 275. The South Path runs through North Carolina and Virginia (274 electoral votes), while the Midwest Path includes Ohio and Iowa (270 electoral votes). Finally, there’s the Expansion Path: Obama carries all the John Kerry states except blue-collar Pennsylvania and libertarian New Hampshire, then compensates with victories in Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and John McCain’s home state of Arizona, which was uncontested in 2008, for obvious reasons.

Take a closer look at those paths. Which voters do they rely on? Several require the president to beat Kerry’s margins among Latinos, the fastest-growing subset of the electorate: the West Path, the Expansion Path, and to a lesser extent the South Path (both North Carolina and Virginia have experienced double-digit Hispanic growth over the last decade). The latter also hinges on increasing African-American turnout vis-à-vis 2004. To follow the Midwest Path, Obama will have to outperform Kerry among working-class Iowans and Ohioans. And Florida is ... well, Florida. It almost always reflects the larger electorate, voting for the eventual winner in every presidential contest since 1964.

So to figure out whether gay marriage will hurt Obama in the fall, you have to figure whether gay marriage alone is likely to block any of these five paths—that is, whether Obama is likely to receive fewer votes from these specific constituencies in these specific states than Kerry received in 2004. For that to occur, Obama would have to suffer a 32-point net loss in Latino support in Nevada; a 27-point net loss in Latino support in New Mexico; a 27-point net loss in Latino support in Florida; a 9-point net loss in black support in Virginia; a 19-point net loss in black support in North Carolina; a 12-point net loss in working-class support in Iowa; and a 5-point net loss in working-class support in Ohio.

In other words, it’s unlikely. Right now, 43 percent of Latinos—a group made up largely of the kind of younger men and women who are driving population growth in key states—approve of same-sex marriage. Among independents that number is up to 52 percent. And opposition among African-Americans has fallen 20 points since 2008. It’s hard to imagine that Obama’s personal opinion about same-sex marriage—remember, he’s not pushing any kind of federal legislation—will be such a turn-off for key demographic groups in key states that their support for the president will plummet to sub-Kerry levels come November.

That said, politics does not occur in a vacuum. Outside organizations may use Obama’s announcement to mobilize evangelicals who would have otherwise been unenthusiastic about voting for Romney; if the president doesn’t match Kerry’s performance among white men, which seems likely, his cushion among minorities will shrink. And so on. But it’s just as likely that these forces will be balanced out by equal and opposite forces: young voters reinspired to volunteer and turn out on Election Day; Latinos appalled by Romney’s far-right immigration stance. The bottom line is that it’s very hard to imagine Obama shedding enough votes on gay marriage to really make a difference where it matters most.

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Which brings us back to Patrick Murphy. Didn’t he lose a bellwether district after going to bat for gay rights? Well, sure. But he didn’t lose because he went to bat for gay rights. Over multiple debates with Republican rival Mike Fitzpatrick, DADT was never mentioned. The issue never appeared in Philadelphia Inquirer or Daily News accounts of the race. As Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of Servicemembers Legal Defense Fund, put it at the time,”we haven't seen, and we've been watching this rather closely, any Congressional races where a member's vote for repeal, or his or her advocacy for repeal, have hurt them.” Why? Because “most Americans who are voting next month are primarily concerned about economic issues. They're concerned about their jobs, they're concerned about their livelihoods, and they're concerned about their standard of living and the way it is falling.”

It was true then, and it’s true now. If Obama ends up being another Patrick Murphy—if he surrenders all 96 of his spare electoral votes—it won’t have much to do with the announcement he made on ABC earlier this week. Gay marriage might, at most, tip the scales at the margins. But the economy will have to do the rest.