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Gay Marriage in the District: Danger Will (and Steve) Robinson?

Andrew Sullivan has already pointed out the cynicism inherent in Michael Goldfarb’s eagerness to have the Congress take up debate on gay marriage rights in the District of Columbia, something which it might wind up doing as a result of the D.C. City Council’s decision yesterday to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. But is the claim Goldfarb makes even correct on its surface? Is this particular permutation of the issue necessarily an electoral winner for the Republicans? That is far from clear.

Here, for your context, is Goldfarb:

The District of Columbia’s Council voted today to recognize gay marriages performed in other states, setting Republicans on the Hill up for a great opportunity to hit an issue that polls well. As the Washington Post puts it, “The unanimous vote sets the stage for future debate on legalizing same-sex marriage in the District and a clash with Congress, which approves the city’s laws under Home Rule. The council is expected to take a final vote on the legislation next month.” […]

On [gay marriage and gun rights], Democrats in the District seem to have near religious faith in the righteousness of their cause and their prospects for victory, but Republicans should take heart: these measures are a gift. Democrats in Congress will be hard pressed to side with the District’s Council on gay marriage when such measures have been soundly rejected in solid blue states like California.

Emphasis mine. What isn’t clear from Goldfarb’s statement is what exactly it is that polls well. The anti-gay marriage position itself polls reasonably well, but not nearly as well as it used to. Scrolling through the data at A CNN poll in December reported that 44 percent of the public supports marriage rights for gay couples versus 55 percent opposed; a Newsweek poll conducted at around the same time came up with 39 percent in favor, 55 percent opposed, and a Time poll in August actually had the gay marriage question evenly split at 47-47. For the sake of context, the roughly 40%/50%/10% undecided split is about how the pro-life position usually polls; there are now about as many people who favor legalizing gay marriage as do banning abortion.

Considering that (i) there is some opportunity cost involved to the Republicans in attempting to attack on the gay marriage issue (ii) the issue is the almost literal embodiment of the Rovian politics that the public appeared to have rejected in 2006 and 2008, and that (iii) liberals, following the passage of Proposition 8, may for the first time be at least as energized on the issue as are conservatives, it is less than obvious that a debate over gay marriage is the way back to the promised land for the GOP. The McCain campaign, of which Goldfarb was a part, performed this calculation and largely chose to pass on the issue; perhaps that was yet another in a series of poor decisions (the party base would certainly argue as much), or perhaps it was one of the few things they did right.

In fact, however, gay marriage per se is not the issue. Rather, the issue is whether the Congress, in its role as the guardian of the District of Columbia, ought to have the right to override the judgment of the District’s democratic institutions on the issue. Goldfarb obscures this by citing California (and does so disingenuously by characterizing Proposition 8’s narrow victory as a “[sound] rejection” of gay marriage). But electorally speaking, California (which gave Barack Obama 61 percent of its vote) is closer to Alabama (39 percent) than it is to the District (92 percent). There is little doubt that a referendum to permit gay marriage would pass in D.C.; more to the point, perhaps, its democratically-elected City Council has already begun to move toward recognizing gay marriage.

What’s important for our discussion is that there appears to be a decent fraction of the public that might not want gay marriage in their states, but respects the rights of other states to decide for themselves on the issue, particularly when those decisions are reached via electoral rather than judicial means. There was notably little outcry in conservative circles, certainly, when Vermont’s legislature voted yesterday to override a gubernatorial veto and permit gay marriage in the Green Mountain State.

In particular, the Federal Marriage Amendment, which would have banned gay marriage in all states, was actually somewhat unpopular. Going back again to a Newsweek poll in December had Americans opposed to such an amendment 52-43, a Time poll had them opposed to it 58-35, and Quinnipiac had them opposed 56-38, although a Gallup poll last May had the numbers closer to 50-50.

The District of Columbia, of course, is not a state. Nevertheless, I’d guess (and this is just a guess — I can’t find any polling on the issue) that most Americans regard it as being more or less like a state, and assume that it ought to have ample discretion to determine its own affairs, instead of having those decisions be overridden by Congressional fiat. Democrats should feel reasonably happy to engage on the issue, particularly if their opponents are conservatives like Goldfarb who seem to think the last four years are some sort of very bad, very gay dream.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.