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November 12, 2004

Influence of gay marriage on Bush vote is disputed

The day after 51 percent of voters returned Republican George W. Bush to the White House for a second term, U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., predicted that many people would blame gays. Sure enough, many have.

�Just a year ago, justices of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that same-sex couples have the legal right to marry. George W. Bush is thanking them today,� wrote Joan Vennochi, a columnist for the Boston Globe, in a November 4 essay. �That is the new conventional wisdom about why Kerry lost to Bush. Unfair it may be, but in the aftermath of defeat, some Democrats directly blame Margaret Marshall, chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, for creating the perfect storm: unleashing a highly divisive issue that turned out a passionate Republican voter base in critical states just in time for the 2004 presidential election.�

Frank blames San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, for directing that city to start issuing marriage licenses to gay couples--an event that triggered a media blitz that snowballed into other towns and cities issuing marriage licenses before any of them had clear legal authority to do so.

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said the same-sex weddings in San Francisco earlier this year were �too much, too fast, too soon� and energized conservative voters. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd said Republicans turned gays into this election�s Willie Horton--a reference to a 1988 racially charged GOP campaign ad that accused Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis of being soft on crime after Horton, a convicted murderer, committed another rape and murder while on a weekend furlough from a Massachusetts prison.

Hundreds of political pundits, politicians, and plain old ordinary citizens on radio and television talk shows have been citing gay marriage as a key factor for why they think Bush did better at the polls this year than he did in 2000.

Rove downplays marriage issue

One of the few people who has seemed hesitant to point to gay marriage as the critical issue in Bush�s re-election has been the president�s campaign �architect� himself: Karl Rove. When Meet the Press host Tim Russert asked Rove last Sunday about an exit poll showing that more people identified �moral values� as their top reason for choosing their presidential candidate, over Iraq, terrorism, the economy, or other factors, Rove downplayed the significance of the marriage issue.

�I do have a little bit of a different view of those numbers,� said Rove, referring to the exit poll�s 22 percent who voted for �moral values� over the other influences. Rove suggested that the 19 percent who listed terrorism as their most important criteria be lumped with the 15 percent who listed Iraq. Together, he noted, that was 34 percent of voters who considered �security� as their top concern. Lumping the 20 percent who listed �economy/jobs� with the 5 percent who were most influenced by �taxes,� that�s 25 percent �and then moral values is third,� he said.

�What essentially happened in this race,� said Rove, �was people became concerned about three issues--first, the war, then the economy, jobs and taxes, and, third, moral values. And then everything else dropped off of the plate.

Asked what �moral values� meant, Rove said he thought it meant that people �are concerned about the coarseness of our culture, about what they see on the television sets, what they see in the movies, what they read in the newspapers, how they see the values of the country, what they see as the future for our country.�

For the pundits, �moral values� included gay marriage, Will & Grace, Roe v. Wade, and, among other things, Janet Jackson exposing her breast during the Super Bowl halftime show.

�Morality,� wrote Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr., �is, of course, a code word for antipathy toward gay rights and abortion. Those who shared that antipathy voted overwhelmingly for President Bush.�

Is there anything to refute this assumption?

Bigger numbers, different story

The power of the �moral values� interpretation comes from an exit poll of more than 13,000 people nationwide. The major television news networks asked voters, �Which one issue mattered most in deciding how you voted for president?�

To some extent, one needs to scrutinize the results in light of the revelation that the exit polls did not accurately predict who would win in various states. To a greater extent, it should be noted that no one explained to voters what �moral values� meant.

Because �moral values� was not defined on the exit polls, no one can be sure what each voter had in mind when he or she checked off or skipped over that response. The vagueness created an opportunity for people to interpret the results in a wide variety of ways. Some suggest �moral values� refers to gay marriage, some believe it signals abortion rights, some say other things, and some say everything.

But regardless of what �moral values� meant to voters, what did it mean for the vote count? While it might have been the issue cited by more voters than any other in the exit polls nationally, it was not the most important issue in every state--not even in the 11 states which had ballot initiatives to ban same-sex marriage.

In the swing states of Ohio and Michigan, more people chose �economy/jobs� as the most important issue in choosing their president; in Oregon, �Iraq� was the most frequently cited. In Florida, it was terrorism.

Initiatives didn�t help Bush much

If Republicans put marriage initiatives on ballots in some states to push those states into the Bush column, it was a shoddy strategy of little use. Seven of the 11 states with anti-gay marriage initiatives on Nov. 2--Georgia, Kentucky, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Utah--were states that Bush won with substantial margins in 2000. Of the other four--Arkansas, Ohio, Michigan, and Oregon--Bush lost the latter two in 2000 and 2004.

In Ohio, Bush received a smaller percentage of the votes cast for Republicans and Democrats this year, compared to 2000. And in Arkansas, while voter turnout increased by 15 percent, Bush�s percentage of the votes cast for a major party candidate increased by only one percent over 2000.

What about in states where an anti-gay initiative wasn�t on the ballot but the gay marriage issue was just in the air, as a product of pro-gay marriage developments, such as in Massachusetts, California, and New York? Some point to an increased voter turnout overall as evidence that more conservatives were lured to the polls to cast a symbolic vote against gay marriage through President Bush.

In Massachusetts, Bush earned two percent more votes against that state�s own senator John Kerry in 2004 than he did against Tennessee�s native son Al Gore in 2000. In California, Bush increased his share of the vote by one percent. In New York, he picked up four percent more votes.

But in more conservative states, the support for Bush was surprisingly modest. Iowa�s voter turnout increased significantly this year--up 16 percent. Although Bush lost Iowa in 2000 by 4,144 votes, this year, with 206,697 more people voting, he beat Kerry. But he beat Kerry by only 13,471 votes�hardly evidence that a storm of new conservative voters were turning out to rain on the gay marriage parade.

Bush lost New Mexico in 2000 by 366 votes. This year, although 162,521 more voters turned out in New Mexico, he beat Kerry by only 8,539 votes.

Bush won Ohio in 2000 by 165,019 votes. In 2004, Ohio�s 20 electoral votes were all that separated Democrat John Kerry from the presidency. Yet, despite a 20 percent increase in voter turnout in the state (amounting to 918,412 more voters), Bush beat Kerry by only 136,483 votes. In other words, Bush�s margin in Ohio actually shrank, from 52 percent of the vote in 2000 to 51 percent in 2004�and Ohio had a marriage initiative.

It�s worth noting, too, that as Ohio approved a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, voters in the state�s third largest city�Cincinnati�repealed a charter amendment approved by voters 11 years ago that prohibited gay people from seeking protection from discrimination.

So, did gay marriage have anything to do with the presidential outcome? The exit polls seem to say yes, the ballots cast seem to suggest otherwise. The answer is not clear and easy.

It is also relevant, for instance, to look at how African Americans voted. Eleven percent of African Americans voted for Bush this year--up from only 8 percent in 2000. Why? The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies said it�s because many blacks supported Bush�s position against gay marriage.

Young people, who were polling much more in favor of gay marriage and Kerry, did not show up at the polls in numbers many had anticipated.

How can Bush�s position on gay marriage explain that roughly the same percentage of gay voters supported him this year (23 percent) as did in 2004 (25 percent)? And to what extent is the re-election of an incumbent the reflection of human nature�s preference for maintaining the status quo?

Exit poll: 60% support couples� rights

Whether recognition of civil unions is granted at the state or federal level, the fact that Bush now supports civil unions underscores a new political reality for gay people that represents some improvement.

It is no small matter, notes civil rights attorney Mary Bonauto, that the exit polls Nov. 2 showed that 60 percent of voters believe same-sex couples should have legal benefits through either marriage (25 percent) or civil unions (35 percent).

Bonauto, who led the legal challenge that ultimately won marriage rights in Massachusetts, said she believes the right-wing opponents of equal rights for gays are �desperate� to spin the presidential election results to make gay marriage �look like a toxic issue.�

�But moral values doesn�t mean anti-gay,� said Bonauto. �Sixty percent of voters support some kind of legal protection for gay couples. And while I understand that having 11 state amendments pass highlights our vulnerability, it�s also clear that people don�t support denying rights.�



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