It's All Politics
4:34 pm
Thu May 10, 2012

Black Voters Likely To Stick With Obama Despite Gay Marriage Stance

Originally published on Thu May 10, 2012 5:45 pm

By now, most news organizations and the Twitter world are debating whether President Obama's endorsement of gay marriage will turn off African-Americans — his most loyal supporters.

It's a legitimate question because blacks, compared with other groups that make up the Democratic political base, have been the most resistant to an expansion of gay rights.

Citing deeply held religious objections to homosexuality, African-Americans, many of whom are evangelical Christians, have consistently voted for state bans on gay marriage, most recently in North Carolina on Tuesday. Blacks were credited with (or blamed for) providing the winning margin for the California ban passed in 2008 (which the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled unconstitutional).

As NPR's Frank James and Liz Halloran reported, an October 2011 Pew Research poll found that 62 percent of black Protestants oppose same-sex marriage.

Negative reactions among some black pastors, who have led the opposition, have begun to ripple out.

Thursday on The Tom Joyner Morning Show, the gold standard of national talk radio programs targeting blacks, the Rev. Jamal Bryant, a prominent minister in Baltimore, said Obama's announcement would do "an incalculable amount of damage."

Bryant said Obama created "great division in black churches across America" that leaves black pastors "really confused as to where to stand, because for the past three years we've ... carried his agenda."

Bryant said he "vehemently" opposes gay marriage. Asked if he will vote for Obama in November, he said, "Given the option I've got with Mitt Romney, I think I've got no choice [but to support Obama]. And I think African-Americans are mature enough to say, 'This is not the issue I'm going to walk away from him [on].' "

Gay rights "was never the most salient thing for African-Americans," says Emory University political science professor Andra Gillespie, author of The New Black Politician: Cory Booker, Newark, and Post-Racial America. "There are these other more pressing issues that are more important. Race is still important, poverty is still important, and the Democrats are still the party that does a better job of advocating on those issues, in their view."

In addition, strategists say, blacks angry at the Tea Party-powered attacks on Obama are likely to put aside any disappointment with Obama and turn out in big numbers to defend him in November.

Perhaps a more relevant question is whether Obama's historic stance might encourage more blacks to reconsider their broad disapproval of homosexuality. Some factors indicate that his timing couldn't be better.

A more recent Pew Research poll, taken in April, showed attitudes have softened significantly since 2004. In that election year, multiple states passed gay marriage bans under a strategy devised by White House adviser Karl Rove that successfully energized conservative voters and helped carry President George W. Bush to re-election.

Americans' opposition to gay marriage has declined to 43 percent from 60 percent in 2004, according to Pew. Blacks' opposition has plummeted to 49 percent from 67 percent in that time.

Notably, black opposition receded more quickly after 2008. What's happened in the past four years?

Well, the election of the first black president, the emergence of young voters more open to gay rights, an expansion of domestic partner benefits in the workplace, a modest increase in jurisdictions that recognize civil unions and a weakening of the Christian conservative movement in the GOP.

For similar reasons, questions have arisen about the reactions of Latino voters. Gary Segura, a principal pollster at Latino Decisions and a political science professor at Stanford University, shoots them down:

"Could support for marriage equality hurt the president among Latino voters? Hardly. For starters, Latinos are far more liberal on marriage equality than stereotypes might suggest. ... We found a plurality of Latinos supporting marriage equality — 43%, and another 13% supporting civil unions. Opposition to government recognition of lesbian and gay relationships was only about a quarter, at 26%."

Melissa Michelson, a political science professor at Menlo College in California, says blacks are more likely to confront the issue simply because of the esteem they hold for Obama.

"It says, 'If Obama can be for gay marriage, I can be for it too,' " Michelson says. "It's now a safer position to vocalize. We would hypothesize that it would increase support because now the environment has changed."

It's more than a hypothesis. Last year, Michelson conducted a random field experiment in which 285 blacks in Cook County, Ill., which includes Chicago, were asked in a phone poll if they would be willing to support gay marriage. One group was read a quotation from Coretta Scott King, the late wife of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., in support of marriage equality. The other group wasn't.

"We theorized that the quote would make a difference, and it didn't," Michelson says. Instead, the difference-maker was the race of the caller: "A black person calling a black person made the respondent more likely to support marriage equality," she says. "There's something about being called by a member of your own ethno-racial community."

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