Both Sides See Same-Sex Marriage as Winning Issue in 2012

Key 2012 states are already embroiled in the debate over gay marriage.

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The economy is king in 2012 politics, but in a close election, the issue of same-sex marriage could make a difference.

With New York recently legalizing gay marriage, the Pentagon processing the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," and Congress battling over the Defense of Marriage Act, gay rights have gotten a lot of media attention, and activists on both sides of the argument believe they have a politically potent issue.

Voters who strongly support or strongly oppose same-sex marriage will likely be more apt to get out and vote next year and inspire others to do the same, particularly since several key states are already embroiled in the debate, with battleground state Minnesota adding a gay marriage ban vote to the state's 2012 ballot, and Colorado, another swing state, close to adding a vote to repeal its marriage ban to the ballot, if advocates gather enough signatures. "Clearly the overriding issue in the next election is going to be the economy and jobs," says Brian Darling, a senior fellow for government studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation. But when votes get close, he says, "issues like traditional marriage can make a critical difference in an election and may be a deciding factor."

After the 2004 election, when voters in 11 states adopted same-sex marriage bans, the New York Times reported that socially conservative voters who came out primarily to vote against gay marriage may have tipped the scales in favor of former President George W. Bush. Since presidential elections have been consistently close in the past six cycles—popular vote in every election since 1988 has been within nine percentage points—voters on either side of the issue could tip the scales. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on gay marriage.]

Public opinion and the political landscape have changed on gay marriage since 2004, and both continue to shift. President Obama has not supported gay marriage publicly, and has said his views on the issue are "evolving," though gay marriage advocates and opponents both assume he supports it privately, particularly based on his support for repealing Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as being between a man and a woman and permits states to not recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. And a recent Gallup poll suggests, for the first time, a majority of Americans, or 53 percent, support legalizing it, compared to 27 percent when the Defense of Marriage Act passed in 1996. Younger Americans are leading this change: 70 percent of 18-to-34-year-olds think gay marriage should be legal, compared to 54 percent of the same age group in 2010, according to the poll.

Gay marriage advocates believe this means the issue has reached a tipping point and that Republican candidates who are outspoken against gay marriage will face trouble in the general election. "In the past, Democrats supported gay rights but weren't that excited about talking about it," says Richard Socarides, former Clinton adviser and president of Equality Matters, which works for equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. "And Republicans used gay rights issues as a way to energize right-wing base voters." 2012, he says, will be different, "because the Democrats will be using their support for gay rights as an issue to excite their own base, as an issue to generate enthusiasm around Democratic swing voters." [Vote now: Should the Defense of Marriage Act be repealed?]

But Heritage's Darling disputes the polling data. "The best temperature taking, the best evidence of where the American people are on the issue are the referendums in the various states," he says. Voters in 13 states adopted a gay marriage ban in 2004, and three more did the same in 2008. "There's an overwhelming weight of the vote in favor of traditional marriage over gay marriage."

Despite the fact that all the major GOP candidates oppose gay marriage, the issue has already been a headline grabber on the primary campaign trail. And the fact that New Hampshire's legislature is scheduled to vote on repeal of the state's law allowing gay marriage just before the important first-in-the-nation primary election early next year means that is likely to continue. [See a roundup of political cartoons on the 2012 GOP primary candidates.]