There are lots of theories about how President Obama’s decision to embrace same-sex marriage will affect his electoral prospects in November. The truth is, I don’t think we really know. That’s not quite the same thing as saying that I don’t think it will have any impact — although I do think that, in general, the news coverage you read in major coastal newspapers tends to overstate the degree to which social issues affect presidential voting behavior.
But as Alex Tabarrok writes, it’s mostly just another factor that adds uncertainty to the outcome. Four years from now, or four years ago, it might be different. Likewise, it might be different if gay marriage had performed as well in the voting booth as it did in polls — in which case, one might have more confidence in the slight lead that the pro-marriage position now seems to have in surveys.
What I think more easily explains Mr. Obama’s decision is the way gay marriage is perceived among his Democratic constituents.
According to Pew Research, about 60 percent of Democrats now support gay marriage rights. That’s up from about 50 percent in 2008, when neither Mr. Obama nor his two main opponents, Hillary Rodham Clinton and John Edwards, endorsed it outright.
The point is simply this: it’s very unusual for someone who is the leader of his party — and Mr. Obama is the leader of the Democratic Party as well as being the president — to hold a position on a major issue in opposition to the clear majority of the voters within that party. In elections since World War II, instead, a party’s presidential nominee has generally been someone who is close to the median of his party’s voters. You haven’t had that many true centrists nominated since Thomas Dewey and Dwight D. Eisenhower — although Gerald Ford, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter were closer to the center than most other candidates. You also haven’t had very many people on the political extremes nominated, although George McGovern and Barry Goldwater were clear exceptions.
Mitt Romney fits the pattern this year. If you look at various objective ways to measure his ideology, he is neither a moderate nor an ideological extremist but somewhere almost exactly in between, a “generic Republican” who is a good overall representation of where his party stands in 2012.
Mr. Obama did not endure a primary challenge nor really the credible threat of one, but he still faces some of the same issues in keeping Democrats contented with him. It creates friction within a party when the presidential nominee is out of step with his partisan constituents, and it can affect things like fund-raising and voter enthusiasm. It can produce awkwardness in consensus-building exercises like articulating a party platform, and fray interpersonal relationships.
Since breaking from one’s party is burdensome, if a presidential nominee is going to do it he probably ought to do so conspicuously — as Bill Clinton did, for instance, on welfare reform, or as John McCain did in the distance he maintained from George W. Bush. Then you might gain a reputation as being independent-minded, a maverick, a reformer, or what have you — ideally on an issue where your party’s views don’t sit very well with independent voters or other key swing groups.
Mr. Obama was not really doing that on gay marriage, however. His “evolving” position had more in common with Israel’s strategic ambiguity on the question of whether it has nuclear weapons. He was for gay marriage in everything but name only.
Nor is gay marriage necessarily an issue on which there would have been a strategic advantage to bucking one’s party: independents are much closer to Democrats than to Republicans on the issue.
There is the issue of how African-Americans feel about gay marriage — only about 39 percent of them support it, according to the Pew poll, although the numbers have gone up.
But African-Americans are the one group that really aren’t in any danger of breaking away from their party — at least while Mr. Obama is president. If you run a voter-level regression that attempts to predict whether someone will vote for Mr. Obama based on demographics, being African-American swamps everything else. Even if an African-American voter had other characteristics that tended to correlate with Republican voting (like being older, or more rural, or wealthier), he or she is nevertheless overwhelmingly likely to vote for Mr. Obama. It would take a lot of weight on the scale — much more than this issue is likely to provide, I think — to convert any tangible number of them into Romney voters (although turnout could be another issue).
And there are other key constituencies within the Democratic Party — like younger voters, coastal whites and, increasingly, Hispanic voters — who are supportive of gay marriage. And gays and lesbians themselves, and their families, are an important constituent group for Democrats. (They are more numerous, for instance, than Jewish voters.)
It has often been surmised (correctly, I think) that the Democratic nominee in 2016 and in subsequent years is extremely likely to support gay marriage. Indeed, some prospective candidates, like Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York and Gov. Martin O’Malley of Maryland, have actively been seeking to carve out a reputation for themselves on the issue. It did not make a lot of sense for Mr. Cuomo or Mr. O’Malley to so embrace the issue, while the Democratic president — who is not obviously more conservative than them on other issues — did not. In many ways it is surprising that Mr. Obama did not adopt his new position sooner.