Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The gay marriage decision and 2012 election

This is a nail-biting political call, but my guess is that Barack Obama's endorsement of gay marriage today helps him.

IMPLICATIONS FOR BARACK OBAMA:

PLUSES: It will be a huge energizer for a disenchanted base, and will shape it up like a 23rd century Swiffer.

Whoosh. Whoosh. Presto. Things are in order. The stage is ready. The team is back. It's November 2008 again.

It will officially be cool and groundbreaking to like Obama again, and that's part of what got him elected the first time.

Hipsters will start producing videos again, they'll once again be lit with the fire of social change, Hollywood will rally to Obama like never before, the Occupy forces will Occupy Obama Headquarters, and Coke will probably produce a new commercial that vaguely hints at the sweeping symbolism.

Those are the obvious benefits, and they're big.

A less obvious bonus is that it fits very nicely with Obama's argument that he's the "forward" candidate and Romney the Ward Cleaver guy.

There are lots of moderates who probably disagree with Obama on the substance of his decision but might be, nevertheless, moved by the progressiveness of making a decision like this and what it says about his vision (again, "Forward").

The same-sex decision won't necessarily make these people vote for him, but it could buttress an image of Obama that might ultimately compel them.

In other words, people don't choose a bank for its regal coloring and nice pens, but it adds to the sense of personal security that, in tandem with good features, wins people over.

So that's a significant, indirect effect.

Another advantage is that it, potentially, makes Obama look strong.

Yes, he's been squishier on this than any other issue, but ultimately, his backers will, I think, win people over to the idea that this was a bold, risky move. First president in history to do this? Regardless of context, that's something.

Once again, that's a nice contrast with the popular opinion of Romney as a handsome kite. Of course, Obama's been a handsome kite on this and many other issues, but after 1,000 additional 17-minute "documentaries" from Tom Hanks and George Cloooney on this decision, it won't look as squishy as it actually was.

Most people don't follow his evolution/flip-flops like junkies, and everyone will be more interested in talking about the fact he got there than how he got there.

MINUSES: Advocates for same-sex marriage have to be very careful about calling "intolerance!" on anyone who disagrees with them.

There are a lot who want to celebrate, and celebrate they will. But they also have to remember that voters don't like huge shifts on moral issues.

Yes, the shift has been coming and coming rather quickly, but it's still a different world everyone's waking up to.

Whacking people over the head can make people feel like they've just been whacked over the head. Shocking, but true.

Obama will be severely damaged if his supporters use his flip-flop to megaphone-shame anyone who disagrees with same-sex marriage. That will surely backfire, and let me tell you, the temptation will be strong to go for the kill and many will do it, but it will hurt their cause.

The only thing that'll come out of that is people saying they support same-sex marriage during phone polling; then going to the ballot box and voting against the president who supports it.

This is very tricky ground for Obama and guarantees that there'll be few guarantees in polling leading up to election day.

There's also this. Gay marriage has almost always been a losing proposition at the ballot box. A lot has changed since 2008, but in California -- of all places -- it lost last time.

Yes, the election will be about the economy, but this kind of issue can shape public perception in indefinable ways. Don't underestimate its importance.

IMPLICATIONS FOR MITT ROMNEY

PLUSES: For one, selecting a Veep gets much easier. The base is now behind him. He doesn't need to placate traditionalists in Ohio or Missouri. He can basically choose anyone.

Evangelicals and traditionalists of all kinds will turn out, regardless, and they will turn out big. There's a huge swath of white working class voters in the rust belt states who were already grumbling about Obama to begin with but just couldn't quite stomach Mitt Romney.

But this might be the clincher.

Polling probably won't pick this up (see this NC stunner), but it should be enough for Romney to pick up Ohio, rest easy in Missouri and Indiana, and have an outside shot in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. As I said, this election will be about the economy, but an issue like this can shape perceptions in indefinable, hugely important ways.

Another great unknown is how this affects Hispanics. Yes, blacks are ardently anti-gay marriage, but we already saw how comfortable they were with voting against gay marriage in California and for Barack Obama in 2008. This won't hurt Obama with blacks.

But what about Hispanics, who tend to be socially conservative?

This could be the opening Mitt was looking for with Hispanics. They were never going to flock to him out of love (in fact, very few of anyone was ever going to do that), but they've already been souring on the Obama economy and his approval with them has been falling. This might be the chance for Romney to sneak in.

Sucky economy + gay marriage + Marco Rubio might easily equal 40% of the Hispanic vote, right? And if Mitt wins 40%, he's got the election.

MINUSES: This could be a significant and significantly bad diversion for Romney. Yes, it helps him with the base, but he was already doing fine galvanizing them (or Obama was).

But this means that a social issue will suck up huge swaths of the media's attention and direct eyes away from the unemployment rate and economy. Mitt's spent the past four years trying to move beyond social issues and onto economics, and now this threatens to distract his message, if not derail it.

And in the same way it makes Obama look more modern and visionary (regardless of whether people ultimately agree with that vision), it makes Romney look, well, less like of those things.

He's already been trying to counter the image that he's stodgy and has been fighting this utterly ridiculous argument that the GOP is trying to take the nation back to the 1950's. Romney won't seem any more contemporary or fresh standing next to Obama, and that matters.

This might also hurt him in states like Colorado and Virginia -- not just because Obama's base will be energized, but because independents support gay marriage. Greg Sargent notes that in a recent poll, Gallup showed it up 57%/40% with indies. Now.... I do think polling is horribly suspect on this issue (again, see this for just one example), but the fact is that those states produce moderate suburbanites, and that demo "seems" to be fine with same-sex marriage.

But ultimately, I don't think either candidate wants this issue on his political horizon. They can both clearly see the positives and negatives, and as a sign of how close it is, don't expect either to talk about it too much in the near future.