A Gay Marriage Reversal of Fortune?

It's been a rough summer for gay marriage supporters, what with courts in New York, Washington, Georgia and Nebraska all ruling against them. But recent ...
by | August 1, 2006 AT 3:00 AM

It's been a rough summer for gay marriage supporters, what with courts in New York, Washington, Georgia and Nebraska all ruling against them. But recent polls show that their fortunes could begin to change this fall.

That's when voters in at least six states will be deciding whether or not to define marriage as between a man and a woman in their constitutions. They will join the 16 states that have voted on similar gay marriage bans in the past 24 months, all of which passed quite easily.

In these states, the marriage referendums served as classic wedge issues in that they had the effect of dividing Democrats, thereby providing a political advantage to Republicans. Specifically, since 2004 the marriage amendments have received on average 71.8% of the vote, while in those same 16 states President Bush averaged 58.3% of the vote in 2004, for an average difference of 13.5% (see the full list below).

But polls in Wisconsin and Virginia, which have votes this fall, suggest that the size of that gap may be shrinking. In Virginia, where Bush received 54% of the vote in 2004, a brand new Mason-Dixon poll has the ban favored 56% to 38%, which, if you divide the undecideds evenly between the two sides, would give it 59% of the vote.

In Wisconsin, the situation is even more interesting -- this fall the Badger state could end up being the biggest gay marriage battleground in recent memory.

One Wisconsin poll had the ban ahead by a statistically insignificant 49%-48% margin, almost exactly the same as the 2004 presidential vote (Kerry won the state 50%-49%). Another survey gave it a 53%-44% edge. Regardless, Wisconsin will be the first state to vote on a ban on gay marriage where the result isn't a foregone conclusion.

Of course, as a matter of state law it doesn't matter whether a gay marriage ban passes with 51% of the vote or 75% of the vote. Nor does it matter much to the individuals affected by the policy. But, if these polls turn out to be right, the long-term political and policy implications are significant.

Obviously gay marriage will lose some of its political punch if it becomes just another issue where Republicans and Democrats are united in opposition to one another (as I argued last week, it also may be eclipsed by gay parenting issues). Furthermore, competitive votes would signal greater support for the broad array of gay rights causes, from non-discrimination laws to adoption to hate crimes. So, you can bet legislators around the country will be watching.

That said, these surveys should be taken with at least two caveats. One is that referendums are notoriously difficult to poll, while the other is that not all gay marriage bans are created equal. Both the Virginia and Wisconsin bans would also outlaw civil unions and, in Virginia's case, perhaps other same-sex partnerships. Although that distinction hasn't mattered much in marriage votes over the last couple of years, it could be gaining relevance now.

State              Ban %   Bush '04 %   Difference

Alabama*         81           62               19

Arkansas*        75           54               21

Georgia*          76           58               18

Kansas*           70           62                8

Kentucky*        75           60               15

Louisiana*       79           57               22

Michigan*        59           48               11

Mississippi      86           59                27

Missouri          71           53               18

Montana         67            59               8

North Dakota* 73           63               10

Ohio*             62            51               11

Oklahoma*     76            66               10

Oregon          57            47               10

Texas*           76            61               15

Utah*             66            72               -6

* Measure could be interpreted as barring civil unions in addition to gay marriage.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman | Former Staff Writer | mailbox@governing.com