Obama, gay rights and minorities

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, May 15, 2012


President Barack Obama’s public support for gay marriage will likely invigorate his progressive electoral base and will only bring limited political cost for his re-election bid among key minority voting blocs. By coming out in support of gay marriage, Obama only alienates conservatives who are already opposed to him.


Moderates are always the decisive vote in American elections, but they only begin to pay attention to campaigns a few months before the election. Thus, primary season is an opportunity to revitalize the ideological base of both parties. When primaries are over, the presidential nominees begin a swift and scandal-free journey towards the center. Because party loyalists resent the search for moderation, candidates embrace positions away from the center on issues that are very important to the party faithful but not to moderates. 


In the Republican primaries, Mitt Romney took positions far to the right of moderate Americans. After he secured the nomination, Romney has kept his conservative positions. Because the conservative Republican base has remained highly active—inducing the defeat of a well-respected and highly moderate incumbent Republican Senator in a primary in Indiana last week—Romney seems unwilling or unable to start his necessary journey to a more centrist position.


The Obama campaign team swiftly reacted to Romney’s delay in moving to the center announcing that Obama favors gay marriage. Since there were no Democratic primaries, Obama is using the opportunity to energize his liberal electoral base with a brave policy position. Campaign contributions increased dramatically last week and many liberals now believe that the Obama re-election is a worthy cause on ideological grounds.


Obama’s support for gay marriage will have few costs. African American and Latinos are two strong voting blocs for the Democratic Party.  However, Latinos and African Americans are less inclined to support gay rights than other liberal democratic constituencies. To avoid alienating ethnic minorities, democratic candidates always limit their support for some issues championed by white liberal groups. By declaring his support for gay marriage—moving away from a more generic position in favor of gay rights—Obama ventured into unchartered territory for Democratic presidential candidates.  Fortunately for him, his move will be far less costly for Obama than it would have been for any other Democratic nominee.


It is unlikely that African Americans will desert Obama, the first black President in support of Republicans, especially since that party has all but abandoned all efforts to attract African American voters. It is also improbable that African Americans will abstain at higher rates than in 2008. It is a matter of pride to ensure that the first African American president wins a second term. Thus, though Obama’s public support for gay marriage did not please his African American constituency, he can rest assured that he will not lose voters among the most symbolically important ethnic minority in the U.S.


Latinos are a second key Obama constituency that will not take the announcement well. Latinos are inclined to vote for Democrats, but share many conservative values with Republicans. Any shift to more pro-gay positions by Democrats would normally risk alienating Latinos. However, Republicans have failed to take advantage of their ideological proximity to Latinos. In recent years, they have alienated Hispanics by adopting dogmatic anti-immigration positions.  Latinos dislike Republicans for their anti-immigration positions (which are inevitably associated with being anti-Latino) far more than they dislike President Obama’s support for gay marriage.


The decision to support gay marriage also responds to the feeble economic recovery. Republicans do have a chance at defeating Obama if the election is only about the economy. The high unemployment and the slow recovery—including high gas prices—explain why a majority of Americans believe the country is going in the wrong direction. Obama is most vulnerable when the presidential choice is associated with the economic situation. Thus, it is convenient to divert attention to other issues.  By supporting gay marriage, Obama will further polarize the extremes, giving conservatives a strong argument to stay involved in the race. Moral values will remain central now that Obama has put the issue on the table.  The Republican candidate will find it more difficult to focus the election just on the economy. It will also be a challenge for Romney to reconcile the moderate positions of Americans with the extreme conservative views of more radical Republicans.


Just when gay marriage is being more widely accepted in the U.S., though it has also suffered a few setbacks, the issue will become central in the campaign and will probably become even more divisive than it has been so far. Barack Obama will go down in history as the first president to openly support gay marriage. However, the reason he came out might be much more tactical than ideological. Because the benefits far outweigh the costs for Obama, and because it will be more difficult for Romney to keep the focus exclusively on the economy, the move by Obama will probably help his re-election cause much more than the gay marriage cause, at least in the short term.