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Analysis: Gay marriage decision not working in Obama's favor so far

May 15, 2012|By Paul West
  • President Barack Obama speaks during a campaign fundraiser at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City.
President Barack Obama speaks during a campaign fundraiser at the Rubin… (Mandel Ngan / AFP/Getty…)

WASHINGTON -- It’s been one week since President Obama, prodded into action by Vice President Joe Biden’s remarks on a Sunday talk show, granted Robin Roberts of ABC News an interview in which he revealed his personal policy shift on gay marriage. Whether or not Obama’s decision, and the way it was handled politically, will make a difference on election day is still anyone’s guess — and may always be. Parsing reactions by millions of individual voters, particularly on an issue that ranks far below other concerns for most Americans, obviously involves a measure of guesswork.

That said, the first wave of polling is in, and the results aren’t looking particularly good for Obama. Taken together, four different national opinion surveys over the past week, by reputable organizations with good track records, indicate that the president’s stand could well hurt him politically. Unsurprisingly, the numbers are fairly close; but as often gets pointed out, tight elections are decided by small numbers of votes.

Perhaps the most encouraging sign for Obama comes from a new ABC/Washington Post poll, which found that independent swing voters had a slightly more favorable than unfavorable view of his position (though the results were a statistical tie, given the margin of error for that subgroup). ABC’s analysis, by statistician Damla Ergun of Langer Research Associates, pointed out that independents who reacted most strongly to the decision tilted against it, and that “strong sentiment can better predict voter turnout and vote preferences.”

A Gallup poll found that the overall change in public opinion was a” net minus” for Obama, though the organization cautioned that these results could change, depending on the degree to which same-sex marriage is, or is not, a campaign issue in the fall.

The latest New York Times/CBS poll showed that 26% of voters were less likely to support Obama as a result of his announcement, compared with 16% who said they were more likely to support him. But the small overall sample size and the lack of any valid sub-group data make those numbers fairly useless for purposes of predicting voter behavior. The poll did find, however, that a clear majority of Americans regarded Obama’s declaration of support for same-sex marriage as largely a political move, which doesn’t help him at all.

A fourth poll, by the independent Pew Research Center, found that 25% of Americans felt less favorably toward Obama, while 19% felt more favorably, as a result of his shift. But among independents, there was no measurable change. Nineteen percent regarded him more favorably, 19% less favorably, and 60% said the decision had no effect.

These numbers are only secondarily about overall attitudes toward the issue of gay marriage.  The New York Times poll, for instance, found that 38% of Americans favor allowing gays and lesbians to marry, though longer-term trends continue to move in the direction of overall public acceptance.

There’s also a reasonable argument to be made that those opposed to gay marriage were never particularly disposed to vote for the president’s re-election, and that his decision will continue to energize his supporters (though it also is having the same effect for evangelicals who might have been cool to Mitt Romney because of his Mormon faith).

Overall, the poll data, particularly among voters in the middle who typically decide close elections, would seem to validate Obama’s earlier decision to avoid endorsing same-sex marriage prior to Nov. 6. These new poll numbers also should encourage at least a measure of skepticism toward claims, by the president’s aides and advisers after he decided to make the announcement, that Obama was planning to support gay marriage all along, just not until later in the campaign. At the very least, there remains a question about the degree to which a final, irreversible decision had been made.

Below are excerpts from releases by some of the polling organizations:

Gallup/USA Today: A key to assessing how the change in Obama's view of same-sex marriage will affect his vote share this fall would be to look at its effect on independents, and on Democrats and Republicans whose views are different from the majority of their party.

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