Swingtime for Obama

Mark Duncan/AP Images
President Obama and Michelle Obama after a campaign rally in Columbus, Ohio, May 5, 2012

When President Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage in his May 9 interview with ABC News, speculation among pundits focused immediately on the political fallout, and specifically on the question of how independent voters—i.e., those not committed to either party—would respond to the new position. The usual survey machinery got to work, and answers quickly started coming in. A Gallup/USA Today poll published on May 10 found, for example, that independents supported legal marriage for gay couples by a margin of 53 to 44 percent; however, when asked whether Obama’s announcement made them more or less likely to vote for the president, they went against Obama and their own majority. Just 11 percent said more likely, while 23 percent said less likely, and 63 percent responded that it would make no difference.

The announcement may have been forced on the president by Vice President Joe Biden, who, in endorsing gay marriage the previous Sunday on Meet the Press, got “a little bit over his skis,” as Obama put it in an uncharacteristically vivid metaphor. Evidently, Obama was going to make such an announcement later this year anyway—among other reasons, he needs money from gay donors and bundlers, the big-money givers who go out and recruit others sympathetic to Obama. But whatever the internal machinations, it took courage for Obama to take this position, the dangers of which are borne out by the Gallup numbers I’ve mentioned: Obama and his aides had no idea whether backing gay marriage would help or hurt his reelection chances.

My own hunch is that it’s a tremendous risk; the majority of independents that supports same-sex marriage is narrow and quite new historically. It also seems likely that it this majority is concentrated in a handful of states he’s going to win anyway—or in cities he’s going to carry inside states he’s going to lose anyway (Atlanta and Austin among them).

As for Romney, he’s against even civil unions, and he backs adding an amendment to the Constitution that would define marriage as between, as he always puts it, “one man and one woman.” Those positions may be extreme enough for Obama eventually to claim the middle ground on the issue. But there’s an interesting paradox here: because Obama did the politically risky thing, it appears that he is the one who is out on a limb, while in fact his position has a (bare) majority while Romney’s stand against civil unions is opposed by about two thirds of Americans. But Obama will need to invest time and resources in explaining that difference to voters, and when time and resources become scarce this fall, his campaign may decide that it should devote those assets to other battles.

In either case, it will be the…

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