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Obama’s Support for Gay Marriage: How Will it Help, Hurt Politically?

May 10, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
The political reverberations continued Thursday, a day after President Obama announced his support for gay marriage. Judy Woodruff, Politico's Charlie Mahtesian and The Grio's Perry Bacon discuss how the issue is likely to play out this election year with different voting blocs and voters in different areas of the country.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Political aftershocks from President Obama’s announcement that he supports same-sex marriage reverberated across the country today.

MAN: I think it’s fantastic. You know, it’s about time.

MAN: I’m totally against it. It’s not right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The nation’s divisions were clearly evident today, as Americans digested the president’s new support for same-sex marriage. He announced it Wednesday in an interview with Good Morning America’s Robin Roberts on ABC.

But he insisted it wasn’t designed for political gain.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I think it would be hard to argue that, somehow, this is something I would be doing for political advantage, because, frankly, you know, the — the politics, it’s not clear how they cut. But I’m not going to be spending most of my time talking about this, because, frankly, my job as president right now, my biggest priority is to make sure that we’re growing the economy, that we’re putting people back to work.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The president’s reelection campaign was talking about it in a new online video that criticized Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney for opposing gay marriage.

Today, on MSNBC, Romney senior adviser Ed Gillespie said he will cite the issue as one of many differences with the president.

ED GILLESPIE, Former Republican National Committee Chairman: Sure, I think it’s an important issue for people. And it engenders strong feelings on both sides. I think it’s important to be, you know, respectful in how we talk about the — how we talk about our differences. But the fact is, that’s a significant difference in November.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Romney himself spent part of the day addressing allegations about his teenage years at a prep school in Michigan. The Washington Post reported that, in one case, he bullied a gay classmate, John Lauber, by holding him down and cutting his hair.

Romney apologized today for what he called hijinks and pranks, but he denied singling out anyone for being gay.

He spoke in an interview with FOX News Radio.

MITT ROMNEY (R): I don’t remember that incident. And I’ll tell you, I certainly don’t believe that I or — I can’t speak for other people, of course, but thought the fellow was homosexual. That — that was the furthest thing from our minds back in the 1960s.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Back to today, there were new questions about how gay politics and the marriage issue might play in 10 battleground states come November.

Same-sex marriage has been banned in eight of the states, Nevada, Colorado, Wisconsin, Florida, Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and just this week in North Carolina. Two other swing states permit it, Iowa and New Hampshire.

Tonight, at least, the issue was expected to play to President Obama’s advantage at a Hollywood fund-raiser hosted by the actor George Clooney, and expected to bring in a record $15 million.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on the potential political consequences and calculations of the president’s move, we are joined by Charlie Mahtesian. He is national politics editor for the Web site Politico. And Perry Bacon, he is political editor for NBC News website The Grio.

Thank you both for being here. It’s good to see you.

PERRY BACON, TheGrio.com: Good to see you, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Perry, first off, the president suggesting, we just heard, that this may hurt him politically. Is that right?

PERRY BACON: I don’t actually think it will hurt him politically, in the fact that he’s so — Biden’s comments sort of boxed him in on the issue so much, it would have hurt him to hang it out there where the president and the vice president disagree to some extent.

I don’t know that there’s any — a lot of evidence this is going to really hurt him politically, but it’s not any clearer it’s going to help him politically either. And, usually, presidents don’t do things that are sort of dicey in the political sense.

JUDY WOODRUFF: One wouldn’t think so.

Charlie, how do you see that, whether it could hurt him or help him?

CHARLES MAHTESIAN, Politico: Well, I think it hurts him in particular states.

I think, when you take a look at the swing state universe, there are some states where the issue really resonates. And if you take a look at the map of the United States and expand even beyond the swing states, then you’re talking about over 30 states have rejected it, some states by very large margins, some of them being very important states in the 2012 electoral map.

So in the states where the issue really resonates, then it is a problem, especially if it is going to be close in November.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Resonate in the sense of what, depressing turnout or what? How do you see that?

CHARLIE MAHTESIAN: Well, there are a couple ways it can resonate.

One would be — and this is a point that some folks talked about when thinking through the president’s calculus for the decision, the idea that there are some counties with lots of — with big universities, where it will lead to possibly a percentage or two, an uptick in turnout.

But the other side of the coin would be a state where, for example, they would have had a gay marriage initiative on the ballot recently, and it was overwhelmingly defeated. In those kinds of places — and there are many of them — that is going to gin up turnout, or it would. None of them — none of the big states will have that this time, as compared to, say, 2004.

But, in those states, the issue really generated turnout, especially among evangelicals.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And one assumes, Perry, as you suggested a minute ago, that clearly the White House must have thought through this as part of the president’s decision-making.

But what about the particular states? What do you see as a state or two or three where this could affect the outcome, because it’s going to be close?

PERRY BACON: Well, it is Ohio, Pennsylvania — Ohio and Pennsylvania have white sort of working-class voters who have not liked the president on other issues as well.

People who may be economically more liberal who might, for example, support tax increases on the wealthy that Romney opposes, but maybe more socially conservative, may not be pro-choice, I think there’s a little worry there. And then gay marriage is not supported by older voters. So if you look at Florida, for instance, where the electorate is going to be a little older, that’s where the challenge would be.

I think, on the plus side, you look at like a Nevada, a Colorado, certain college campuses in Ohio, you might get a little more youth turnout in those states. But, still, overall, I’m not necessarily sure there’s a lot of voters who were going to vote for Barack Obama yesterday — or Tuesday — but are not going to on Wednesday because of the gay marriage decision itself.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is this something, Charlie, that one can literally calculate? Can you go, can you look at the country county by county and say there are this many, say, elderly voters here or young voters there?

CHARLIE MAHTESIAN: I think you can do that to a certain degree, not with — not with any real certainty about what it’s going to be, but you can see the places where it really turned out.

Like, for example, if you were to look at Colorado, when Colorado had a ballot initiative several years ago, you had a very big performance in Colorado Springs and the surrounding county, which would have been El Paso County. Now, that’s sort of the heart of the evangelical community in Colorado and in many ways in the United States and in the West.

It’s a huge, very big city there. Focus on the Family is located there. And that is — when the state passed the measure 54-44, El Paso County came through by — in a landslide margin, 2-1. So it really outpaced the state.

And so in places like that, there are singular counties that are really going to respond to this issue.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A lot of conversation today, Perry, about the African-American community, where of course there is a high degree of support for the president. At the same time, what is it, over 50-55 percent of African-Americans, by polling, say that they don’t like — they don’t agree with gay marriage.

So how is that seen playing out?

PERRY BACON: You know, we haven’t seen a big survey of this yet, since the president decided this on Wednesday, about black voters on Thursday.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This fast.

PERRY BACON: But, that said, you know, we did a story in North Carolina where a lot of people said, look, I’m going to vote for this gay marriage amendment, I’m not supporting gay marriage, but I’m not going to like leave the president because of one issue.

It’s hard to imagine his overwhelming support in the black community will somehow change based on one issue.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see that, Charlie?

CHARLIE MAHTESIAN: Well, I would agree. It’s very hard. You have to have gay marriage ranked as number one. And almost every constituency ranks it as something other than number one, no matter what that constituency is.

Having said that, I think the contrarian view would be when you take a look at the president’s support in the African-American community, it’s so high, he can almost only go below that, which is to say he’s still going to win, and any change would be marginal, but there’s not much room for him to grow. There’s really — all the room is to deteriorate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is there much information available about the Latino community, again, another community where the president enjoys high support, not as high as in the African-American — among African-Americans?

PERRY BACON: The polling actually is just a little bit more opposition — less opposition than African-Americans, but sort of more opposition among Latinos than voters overall about gay marriage.

That said, we don’t know how much that is going to motivate them. As Charlie said, another — Latinos rank gay marriage as a low issue in terms of voting priorities as what — gay marriage is a low issue in terms of how they’re going to vote as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about, Charlie, the whole question of fund-raising? It’s already known that in the gay community the president has many large donors.

I saw the other day that one out of every six so-called bundlers, people who go out and get other people to give, happens to come from the gay community. How do you see that affecting the election?

CHARLIE MAHTESIAN: I think it helps to a certain degree, I think maybe marginally. It’s an affluent community. There’s a lot of money there. There’s a lot of money to be tapped.

Having said that, though, it’s not as though there are many gay donors that are clamoring to give to conservatives. They certainly have a base of donors in the gay community, but many of them are locked into the Democratic Party. And they were and were going to be regardless of what the president did.

And many times, the fund-raisers in the donor community, they are fairly politically sophisticated. They understood the constraints on the president and why he couldn’t come out, even though they all suspected in their heart of hearts — or probably knew in their heart of hearts — where he stood on the issue.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We are six months out from the election, Perry. So the timing of this, less, more of an effect on the election? Or how do you see that?

PERRY BACON: I think, based on what you have seen Romney and Obama do the last couple days, which is that neither one of them seeks eager to talk about this — you know Obama has already said, I’m ready to talk about the economy now. Romney said the same thing.

I think it’s going to have very little impact, in part because it happened early and neither candidate wants to talk about this very much. I think, by July, they will be talking — they will have said nothing about this since May, unless being pressed on it.

I think it’s going to have a very limited impact, in part because they don’t want to talk about it themselves, because it’s a controversial issue on both sides.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, interesting, we were just saying we heard that Romney in an interview today, Charlie, said that he is in favor of gay couples adopting children, which is an interesting aspect of this whole. . .

CHARLIE MAHTESIAN: Right.

It’s interesting for a couple reasons. Every time he wades into the issue, he seems to get in trouble, whether he’s referring to it as a states’ rights issue or a federal issue. There would seem to be some tension in having a position where you don’t believe in gay marriage, but support adoption of children.

Either way, it’s not a winner for Republicans. And you really saw that yesterday. In the aftermath of the announcement, there was close to silence on — with Republican candidates across the board because they don’t want to be taken off-message, because they know fighting a culture war in an economy election is a huge loser for them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Fascinating subject.

And we thank you both, Charlie Mahtesian, Perry Bacon.

PERRY BACON: Thank you.

CHARLIE MAHTESIAN: Thanks.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thank you.

And, by the way, on our website, Patchwork Nation breaks down the types of communities where the same-sex marriage issue resonates the most.