In 2004, Karl Rove masterminded a devious political strategy from his perch at the White House, building a massive get-out-the-vote scheme partly centered around opposition to marriage equality. But even with a federal judge in California declaring Proposition 8 unconstitutional this week, it appears unlikely his decision will be used to energize the GOP base in the 2010 mid-term elections.
President George W. Bush won his 2004 reelection bid with 50.7 percent of the vote to Sen. John Kerry’s 48.3 percent, but Ohio, with its 20 electoral votes, was the real prize. That November, Ohio and 10 other states had gay marriage ban questions on their statewide ballots, each passing easily. The New York Times reported that the bans in Ohio and elsewhere acted like “magnets,” driving social conservatives to the polls and boosting Bush’s numbers:
In Ohio, for instance, political analysts credit the ballot measure with increasing turnout in Republican bastions in the south and west, while also pushing swing voters in the Appalachian region of the southeast toward Mr. Bush. The president’s extra-strong showing in those areas compensated for an extraordinarily large Democratic turnout in Cleveland and in Columbus, propelling him to a 136,000-vote victory.
“I’d be naïve if I didn’t say it helped,” said Robert T. Bennett, chairman of the Ohio Republican Party. “And it helped most in what we refer to as the Bible Belt area of southeastern and southwestern Ohio, where we had the largest percentage increase in support for the president.”
What a difference six years makes.
This year Republicans are hoping to peel off some of the same moderate and independent voters who helped elect President Barack Obama in 2008. But the reaction in GOP circles to Wednesday’s landmark ruling in California suggests Rove and his colleagues may view an anti-gay strategy as less appropriate today.
Part of the reason may be a remarkable shift in the electorate on the question of LGBT rights over the last six years. Today, nationwide support for marriage equality looks much different than it did in 2004. A CBS News poll conducted in March of that year found just 22% of Americans favored legal marriage for gays and lesbians. But an ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted in February of 2010 found nearly half (47%) supporting marriage rights for same-sex couples–a 25 percentage point jump.
Republicans also understand that in an economy that has yet to create many new jobs since the near-collapse of the financial system, voters may not be in a mood to listen to messages about same-sex marriage. An article in Politico today explores the GOP’s apparent reluctance to pounce on Judge Vaughn Walker’s Proposition 8 decision:
“It raises an issue (Republicans would) rather not have to deal with … (it’s) hard to walk to the line of opposing same sex-marriage and displaying enough tolerance to keep independents and Democrats comfortable enough to vote for you.”
Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, put it simply: “A modern party does not want a campaign that’s built around a crusade on gay rights. … it won’t work, for one thing, and for another, it’s so controversial that it would obscure the nonpartisan appeal of the economic issue.”
He added, “I don’t think that moderates and independents get very excited about this.”