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Will Obama's support of same-sex marriage cost him Latino votes?

Photo by darcyandkat/Flickr (Creative Commons)

That's become one of the burning questions since yesterday's announcement by President Obama that he believes same-sex couples should have the right to marry, made a day after North Carolina legislators voted to outlaw same-sex marriage in their state.

Obama's announcement itself wasn't tied to any particular legislation, but it's been characterized as a political gamble in an election year. And some of the speculation has since moved to how such a statement from Obama will resonate in November with Latino voters, whose votes helped propel him to victory in 2008 - and who tend, at least as far as first-generation immigrants go, to be on the socially conservative side.

In the end, Obama's announcement may have less of an effect on Latino voters (and on black voters, also divided on same-sex marriage) than some might think now. The election is six months away, and recent polls suggest that Latinos are far more concerned with issues like the economy and jobs than with same-sex marriage, birth control, even immigration. Still, it's worth digging into some of the recent data.

Last month, the National Council of La Raza and Social Science Research Solutions, a public opinion research firm, released the results of a survey which suggested Latinos are not as unaccepting of homosexuality, or even of same-sex marriage, as perceived to be. Fifty-four percent of those surveyed supported same-sex marriage, and 64 percent supported civil unions.

That said, there are some big differences within this population: Latinos who are deeply religious are less tolerant of homosexuality, as it goes with the general population. Their level of acculturation matters as well, with those less acculturated to the U.S. also less tolerant.

Even among the religious there are differences, with Latino Protestants and non-Catholics who identify as "Christian" more likely to oppose same-sex marriage than Catholics. A chart from the report:

Source: National Council of La Raza/Social Science Research Solutions


As far as acculturation goes, the attitudes of immigrants from Latin America, where being "out" as a homosexual is still taboo in many places, seem to mellow with time and exposure:

It could very well be the case that the reason the unacculturated are intolerant is because gay and lesbians are less upfront themselves in their “home country;” As Hispanics live longer in the U.S., the more they stumble across LGBT issues, and more importantly, LGBT themselves. Our data corroborate with other data that the more one comes into contact with LGBT, the more tolerant they become.

A survey of Latino voters from last November released by Univision and the polling firm Latino Decisions found similar attitudes. According to those results, 43 percent of Latinos polled overall said that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry; 13 percent agreed with civil unions.

But in addition to the predictable splits along party lines (47 percent of Democrats for same-sex marriage, 22 percent of Republicans against), there were significant generational and cultural differences. For example, only 28 percent of the foreign-born Latino voters polled said they backed same-sex marriage, as opposed to 54 percent of those born in the U.S.

Overall, though, the numbers skew toward general support. The San Francisco Chronicle interviewed Latino Decisions principal and Stanford professor Gary Segura today as to whether Obama's announcement would cost him among Latino and black voters in November:

That possibility is “is wildly unlikely,” said Gary Segura, professor of American Politics and Chicano Studies at Stanford University and a principal in the polling firm Latino Decisions.

While many Latinos are Catholic, a religion which does not condone same sex marriage, Segura said Latinos rarely let their religious beliefs steer their votes.

...As for African-Americans, who now support the president by a ration of roughly 9 to 1, Segura said, “it’s hard to believe that they are going to not support the first African-American president” because of something unrelated to the economy or race.

And there is that - the economy. It's a top-of-mind concern for Latinos and other minorities that eclipses other key issues, including immigration. So much so that Republican strategists have been pushing it as a way for GOP nominee-apparent Mitt Romney to make much-needed inroads with Latino voters, having been unable to get close on immigration.

In a recent general voter survey, the Pew Research Center ranked the economy at the top of 18 key issues for voters; same-sex marriage placed at the bottom, and immigration not much higher. Come November, it could all boil down to the words of James Carville two decades ago.

Perhaps the savviest quip I've seen today relating to Obama's announcement was in a Washington Post story that quoted Stu Rothenberg, editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report:

“There will be a lot of talk, a lot of huffing and puffing from both sides in the next 48 hours, but the election is still about jobs and the economy -- not gay marriage,” he said.

With Latinos still reeling from the economic downturn, there's a good chance that for them, the same will hold true.