Gay issues appear to be playing a relatively small role in the 2006 election cycle, according to a panel of experts divining the tea leaves two weeks before election day. They spoke at a forum at the National Press Club in Washington Oct. 25, organized by the D.C. chapter of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association.
'We just don't hear discussion of gay marriage or gay issues as a driving force in the elections this year,' said Bob Benenson, the politics editor of Congressional Quarterly. 'If I could speculate on why, social issues [ and ] issues involving morality tend to have their greatest electoral cogency in years when people have the time to focus on them, when there are not other issues on their mind.'
He believes that developments with the war in Iraq, the abysmal government response to Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf Coast, and a sense that President Bush has not made social issues a priority have all undercut support for Republicans among their social conservative base. It makes it more difficult to use social issues to mobilize that base.
While the Mark Foley 'scandal' has a direct impact on a few select congressional races, Benenson said the cumulative effect is to add to the image of corruption in Washington. He cited a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll that had the approval rating for Congress at just 16%, several time lower than that of the President.
Republicans, as the party in charge of Congress, are bearing the brunt of that disappointment. Polling is not showing any broader anti-incumbent feeling that sweeps up Democrats, except perhaps to a small extent in the New Jersey senate race.
Jonathan Rauch, a political writer with the National Journal who is openly gay, said the polling numbers on gay marriage and civil unions haven't changed much over the last few years. 'It is very hard to move public opinion on this issue; a lot of people have made up their minds.'
What may have changed is the power of the issue to 'mobilize' voters. 'We began to see a change in the wind in Virginia in 2005 when 'values issues' didn't work so well' when the Republican candidate for governor tried to run on them. Rauch suggested, perhaps 'the moral values credit card has maxed out.'
He pointed to decisions by 'liberal' state courts in New York, Washington, California, and Connecticut 'where they have said they would not impose same sex marriage,' but rather declared it the purview of the legislature. This helped to defuse the cry of judicial activism.
Rauch said that a pro-gay marriage ruling from the New Jersey court may revive the issue. Benenson concurred, 'It not only elevates that [ marriage ] issue, it also brings back the issue of unelected judges making law,' which resonates more broadly among voters.
Maggie Gallagher, a leading proponent of restricting marriage to that of a man and a woman, acknowledged that gay marriage does not have a high a profile in this election year. She said it is hard for a politician to deliver on the issues important to 'values voters.'
Gay marriage advocates have put the issue on the national agenda and 'have substantially consolidated Democratic support among voters, in a way that was not clear when it first became an issue, with powerful exception of African Americans, who continue to oppose gay marriage by substantial margins,' she said.
Speaking to the New York Times after the New Jersey marriage decision came down, Gallagher called it 'a temporary reprieve.' This suggests that it might not be a sufficient prod to motivate socially conservative voters, though many groups are spinning away, trying to exaggerate what the court said.
When Rauch was later contacted he said, 'The fact that the New Jersey court stopped short of ordering marriage makes it harder to use, so I'd be surprised if the decision makes more than a very marginal difference in the elections.'
'The problem is that this is a year when even a very marginal difference may matter. If the Republicans hold both houses, we'll probably never know if the New Jersey decision was a crucial factor, but cultural conservatives will claim it was a crucial factor, and that may help scare Democrats away from gay-friendly positions.'
The eight states with gay marriage ballot questions—Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia, Wisconsin—are showing different polling numbers on support, said Marty Rouse, national field director for the Human Rights Campaign.
'Six of the eight ban not just marriage but also partnership recognition in the form of civil unions or domestic partnerships, for same sex an opposite sex couples,' he said.
Rauch added, by expanding the ban to include civil unions and domestic partnerships, the backers 'are trying to cut out the compromise ground [ of civil unions ] and re-radicalize the debate. I think that would be quite unfortunate from a political point of view.'
Polling numbers in Arizona, Colorado, and South Dakota appear to be close enough that gay advocates are hoping they can win one or more of those contests.
Gallagher believes that all eight ballot initiatives will pass, but she acknowledged, 'where gay rights groups have chosen to strongly contest them, the margin of victory is going to be reduced, compared to the 60% to 80% levels' in earlier elections. She said most of the arguments being used by gay marriage proponents focus on other issues in these campaigns, and the core support for gay marriage itself has not changed substantially.