Same-sex marriage no longer such a divisive political issue

Support hits high at 53 percent, according to poll

By Mark Arsenault
Globe Staff / March 27, 2011

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WASHINGTON — Once guaranteed to whip up voter opposition, same-sex marriage is losing much of its bite as a political wedge issue, undercut by greater concerns about the economy and growing support for gay marriage among voters.

Public support for gay marriage is at a record 53 percent, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll released this month, the first time the poll has measured support for gay marriage above 50 percent. In 2004, support was 32 percent.

Among the young, the question appears settled: 68 percent of voters ages 18 to 29 support same-sex marriage rights.

The findings reflect broad trends revealed in other polls. As support has steadily risen, “gay marriage has lost its clout [to divide voters] as a wedge issue,’’ said Darrell West, vice president and director of governance studies for the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. “Same-sex marriage has become mainstream.’’

The steady shift in American opinion was reflected in the muted political response to President Obama’s decision last month not to defend the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as the union of one man and one woman. The law is under attack in federal courts over its constitutionality.

The first reaction of House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican, to the president’s announcement was a bland critique of the timing — not the substance — of Obama’s decision. The Republican-controlled US House then took over defense of the law with little fanfare, bypassing the opportunity to hold a floor debate and a vote before the public.

“If you’re looking to fire up conservatives, gay marriage is still popular,’’ said Ron Bonjean, a Republican political strategist. “But the fight has been for independents and the center, and what they really care about are jobs and the economy. It’s hard to see what candidate would try to make gay marriage a front and center part of the message.’’

In the 15 years since the Defense of Marriage Act was passed and signed by President Clinton, five states and Washington, D.C., have allowed same-sex marriage, and other states have passed civil union statutes to extend more rights to gay couples.

In New Hampshire, legislators this month put off a vote to repeal the state’s 2009 gay marriage law, delaying action on repeal proposals until 2012. People on each side of the debate were disappointed in the lack of action, but Republican leaders said the gay marriage debate would have distracted from their efforts to deal with the state’s finances and education funding this year.

In California, the question of extending marriage rights to gay couples is in the hands of the courts. California voters in 2008 narrowly approved “Proposition 8,’’ which limited marriage to heterosexual couples.

A federal judge last year overturned the initiative as unconstitutional, but gay marriages are on hold during appeal. The appeal is waiting for the state Supreme Court to clear up questions over which groups or individuals have legal standing to defend Proposition 8 in court.

One of the most politically active and tenacious opponents of gay marriage, Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, said Republicans are heading toward an electoral blunder if the party accepts a “truce’’ on social issues in favor of a 2012 campaign built primarily on economic issues. “That is a mistaken idea from some Republican pollsters and pundits who think we can’t walk and chew gum at the same time,’’ said Brown, in an interview. “Wavering on core issues is a political disaster.’’

Brown said he is confident that same-sex marriage retains clout as a political issue. “There is an attempt to create the illusion that same-sex marriage is inevitable,’’ said Brown, who noted the defeat this month of a gay marriage bill in the Maryland assembly that many had expected would pass. “I think the marriage issue will be key in the presidential primaries and the presidential election.’’

Democrats on Capitol Hill have launched a high-profile effort to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act. This effort comes three months after Congress voted to repeal another Clinton-era policy: “Don’t ask, don’t tell,’’ which banned openly gay people from the US military.

Representative Barney Frank, a Newton Democrat and one of the House’s few openly gay members, said he knew the political momentum on gay marriage had changed when he was asked last week at a press conference if Democrats were using the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act as a political tactic to force the GOP to take an uncomfortable vote.

“My response was, Hallelujah!’’ said Frank, in an interview. “Five years ago this was a wedge issue they would use against us. It has almost flipped.’’

A Globe survey of the Massachusetts congressional delegation shows support for gay marriage and for repealing the Defense of Marriage Act by Kerry and each of the Bay State’s House members, all Democrats.

US Senator Scott Brown, the one Republican in the state delegation, opposes gay marriage and the repeal of the act, though he said in a statement that Massachusetts “has already had that debate and we’ve moved on.’’

Just 31 percent of Republican voters favor marriage rights for same-sex couples, according to the latest poll. But that number has inched up from 23 percent five years ago.

“On the Republican side there is significant division that has emerged — most notably Dick Cheney,’’ said Phil Singer, a Democratic Party strategist. Cheney, the former vice president and father of a gay daughter, supports gay marriage and the rights of each state to handle the issue as its people see fit.

In today’s Republican presidential politics, Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana, a possible GOP contender, felt politically safe enough to call for a “truce’’ on social issues while the nation deals with the struggling economy. When attacked by social conservatives, Daniels stood his ground and won a round of glowing editorials in the mainstream press. The political shift has not escaped the attention of Christian evangelicals, 75 percent of whom voted Republican in the last presidential election, according to exit polls.

“I think it’s clear that something like same-sex marriage is going to become normalized, legalized, and recognized in the culture,’’ said evangelical leader Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., in radio remarks after Obama announced he would no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act. “It’s time for Christians to start thinking about how we’re going to deal with that.’’

In an interview with the Globe, Mohler said he received significant pushback over his comments from his own community. “Some Christians say that even talking about same-sex marriage is a surrender,’’ said Mohler, who opposes gay marriage. “But I think of it as an acknowledgment that in several states same-sex marriage is obviously a fact. It’s not theoretical. Very few Christians are talking about that.’’

He said the shift in public opinion is inescapable, and noted the huge generational gap in polling that shows young people are far more accepting on gay issues.

“We’re going to be in a minority position,’’ he acknowledged. “We’re going to have to deal with that while demonstrating the kindness Christians are known for without giving up our convictions. Clearly Christians are not going to be running up to same sex couples and yelling, ‘You’re not married!’ That’s not a realistic strategy.’’

Mark Arsenault can be reached at