Public opinion, political clout cause shift in Democrats' embrace of gay marriage

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Photo by Paola Kizette Cimenti via Flickr Creative Commons

This past weekend, Democrats debated for the first time whether support for gay marriage should be part of their party platform.

For the first time, a committee approved a gay marriage plank in the Democratic party platform. The Minneapolis meeting last weekend was the first step toward formal adoption at Democrats' national convention. The historic move is influenced by a shift in public opinion — and increasing political clout from the gay and lesbian community.

A political party’s platform is largely symbolic. But Congressman Adam Schiff says including marriage equality in the Democrats’ platform for the first time would be an important symbol, essentially validating what he calls a "core value" of the Democratic party. Schiff says the party statement would accelerate what he calls a national trend towards equality.

Fred Sainz of the Human Rights Campaign says that American public opinion on gay marriage has evolved — and quickly. He cites a spring Gallup poll that shows 53 percent of Americans support marriage equality.

"The fact that they have changed their minds by 24 percentage points in 16 years is the kind of stuff that makes pollsters [...] heads spin," Sainz said.

That Gallup poll shows it was Democrats and independents who changed their minds, while Republicans’ opinions on gay marriage stayed the same.

Congressman Schiff, as a member of the platform-drafting committee, got nearly every Democratic colleague from California to sign a petition supporting the gay marriage plank. In California, registered Republicans make up just 30 percent of the electorate.

Marc Sandelow, who teaches political science at the University of California's D.C. campus says it may be true that "for an overwhelming number of candidates on the Democratic side, endorsing gay marriage is perfectly safe." But, he says, there are a handful of candidates to whom the issue "will make the difference between a Boehner and Pelosi speakership."

This is a year when Democrats are trying to hold onto the Senate and aspiring to take back the House.

And the risks aren’t for members of Congress alone. This spring, President Obama publicly endorsed gay marriage, an issue that's unpopular in many swing states.

According to Public Policy Polling, more than half of voters in Ohio, Iowa and Virginia oppose gay marriage. Fifty percent give it thumbs down in Pennsylvania, and opposition runs 10 percent ahead of support in Florida.

Congressman Schiff acknowledges the political risks, saying he knows it's "more difficult for some of my colleagues in other parts of the country." But, he says, in the end, "we all have to ask ourselves whether we want to be on the right side of history."

Political science professor Marc Sandelow of UCDC says the issue is driven by principle, "but it’s also driven by money."

Viveca Novak from the Center for Responsive Politics says more than a million dollars have been given to the Obama campaign from donors who identify their employer as pro-gay and lesbian rights, or from Political Action Committees (PACs) affiliated with those groups.

This does not include contributions from celebrities who are openly gay or lesbian. Novak says more than $9 million has been raised by openly gay or lesbian supporters who “bundle” contributions for the president’s campaign.

"And at least one in nine of his top-tier bundlers were gay or lesbian," she says (referring to those who raise over $500,000 for Obama). Overall, more than 7 percent of Obama campaign cash comes from gay and lesbian supporters.

Novak says Republicans are largely left out of the equation. In national political campaigns, 90 percent of gay and lesbian contributions go to Democrats, despite efforts from the Log Cabin Republicans, the GOP’s only pro-gay/lesbian advocacy organization.

Novak says Democratic politicos look at the costs and benefits:how many voters are you driving away by supporting marriage equality and how many are you bringing in? She says they’ve "made the calculation" that more people are being brought in "not just in terms of money, but in terms of support."

That support translates into people who go door to door, rounding up supporters to go to the polls in key states. She says that may or may not be why President Obama did it, "but I think that the calculation by many politicians these days is that’s the way to go."

Democrats will weigh the political costs and benefits of publicly embracing marriage equality when they vote on their party platform in Charlotte at their national convention in September.

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