Do Gay Rights Hurt Democrats?
In Jason’s post on DADT’s repeal, he noted:
One thing that history won’t remember, but that will certainly be true, is that the Democrats chose the single moment in all the possible permutations of the election cycle when it would cost them the very least — when an election has just been held, when it costs the least in their own members’ cushy seats, when many of them are leaving anyway, and when they can spend the next two years complaining about an agenda not of their own making.
In response, Jack Gillis argues that Jason’s position:
is beyond ridiculous. DADT and related gay rights issues have already cost the Democrats an incalcuable amount for over twenty years (almost thirty depending on how you take the subtext of “San Francisco Democrat” which dates to 1984), including, quite possibly, the White House in both 2000 and 2004. To be churlishly dismissive because they didn’t pay a higher price is indefensible.
I can’t say that I agree with either here, both of which assume that gay rights are a politically costly issue for Democrats.
With regards to Jason’s claim, I don’t think the lame-duck session passage of DADT repeal demonstrates political cowardice so much as it represents a response to legislative incentives combined with a need to hold on to a strong Democratic issue in an abysmal electoral year for the governing party.
To be sure, in retrospect, I think that the Democrats could have and should have pushed for a straight up or down vote on it on January 21, 2009. But history tells us that governing parties will make the issues on which they most vocally campaigned their first priority, save for emergent situations (e.g., massive economic collapse, which we of course had). DADT repeal simply was not a major issue in the 2008 campaign, particularly not when compared to health care, financial reform, Iraq, Afghanistan, and even card check. I suspect that the Dems also miscalculated the willingness of the GOP in the Senate to stand firm in opposition to anything they attempted, such that they figured DADT repeal would just harm their ability to pass other elements of their agenda even if they succeeded in passing it.
But there was also little incentive for them to push too hard for it in the runup to the 2010 elections; it’s a 75-25 issue and has been for several years, so passing it just prior to the election would only succeed in removing one of the few issues they could actually campaign on in a year where they needed everything they could get. I don’t think this is cowardly so much as it is just a function of politicians being politicians and responding to incentives. It’s worth noting, indeed, that the other major issue that they knowingly left for the lame-duck session is START, which is likewise far more controversial in Washington than it is amongst the electorate at large, where it also has about a 3:1 advantage. That issues with such overwhelming majorities would be politically risky for Democrats in Congress to tackle simply does not make sense.
So I disagree with Jason’s implication that the Dems were merely being cowardly and doing this at the moment it would cost them the least. I think instead they were responding to systemic incentives (although those incentives are based on a political consultant-driven misperception about the utility of specific issues in national elections, which are ultimately a function of the economy and to a lesser extent, war). There really would have been no cost to the Dems for pushing this earlier given the strength of public opinion in their favor on this issue.
I likewise thus have to strongly disagree with Gillis’ argument that:
“DADT and related gay rights issues have already cost the Democrats an incalcuable amount for over twenty years (almost thirty depending on how you take the subtext of “San Francisco Democrat” which dates to 1984), including, quite possibly, the White House in both 2000 and 2004. “
As noted above, DADT is a 70-30 issue, so I don’t see how it’s specifically an issue that is meaningfully costing Dems right now. But that aside, I just don’t think it’s correct to say that Dems’ willingness (such as it exists) to support gay rights has cost them, in aggregate, over the recent past.* It should be fairly clear by now that gay rights are the primary reason why gays overwhelmingly vote for Democrats (anywhere from 68% to 80% in recent elections); unlike other groups for which civil rights are a major issue, gays don’t tend to come from overwhelmingly similar socioeconomic or even educational backgrounds. So without civil rights as an issue, there’s no reason to think that gays would be a coherent voting bloc at all.
By contrast, opposition to gay rights is a significant motivating factor for only one group of the electorate, and that group is the die-hard social conservatives who would vote GOP no matter what. Even with them, there’s also not much evidence that gay rights issues get them to the polls in a stronger number than they otherwise would vote, and certainly not in such a larger number as to offset the increase in turnout and support for Democrats from gay rights supporters (see below). Other groups may tend to oppose gay rights, but it’s such a low-priority issue for them that, with the possible exception of SSM, there’s no reason to think that it factors into the equation at all. For these groups, as with the vast majority of the electorate, the major factors that will influence their vote are the economy and, to a lesser extent, wars.
The two specific examples Gillis cites are 2000 and 2004. But, as screwed up and close as the election in 2000 was, I don’t think there’s any evidence that outside of Vermont (which Gore won easily) gay rights were even on the radar screen as an electorally significant issue. SSM at that point had not been legalized in any states, and DOMA had passed four years earlier with overwhelming bipartisan support. Of course, for the one group actually directly affected by gay rights, it was presumably still very much on the radar screen, and there was no doubt as to which of the two parties would be preferable on that front. In other words, in 2000, there’s pretty good reason to believe that Dems’ less-crappy position on gay rights helped them far more than it hurt them.
One might think 2004 is a much stronger case for Gillis’ position, but I think it fails as well, especially to the extent his argument is that it was Democrats’ association with gay rights that cost them rather than merely that gay rights issues helped get out the GOP base more strongly. Take a look, for instance, at this:
Consider the case of Ohio: John Kerrylost Ohio, a state with a ballot initiative and substantial effortsby the Christian right to mobilize voters. But Kerry won a greater percentage of the vote than Gore had (48.9 percent rather than 48.2 percent). Indeed, Bush lost vote share in each of the three battleground states with gay-marriage bans on the ballot, fallingfrom 49.7 percent of the overall two-party vote in these states in 2000 to 49.6 percent in 2004. In contrast, Bush gained vote share inthe battleground states that did not vote on gay marriage: in Florida, Iowa, Minnesota, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, Bush’s combined 50.4 percent of the vote represented a one-percentage-point increase since 2000.
At the statelevel, then, marriage referenda seem not to have worked to Bush’sadvantage. If we move down to the county level, we find even firmer support for this conclusion. In states with gay marriage on the ballot, Bush gained additional support in the counties he carried in2000. But in these same states he also lost votes in Democratic counties generally and—perhaps more surprisingly—in evenlydivided counties. The overall result is that the polarization of the electorate over gay marriage aided Kerry, not Bush.
Even if the results were the other way around, I don’t think one could lay it at the feet of Democrats’ association with same sex marriage. To do so would be to mistake cause for effect. Democratic politicians are, on the whole, pretty split on the issue of same sex marriage, with most – including the guy in the White House and the Dems’ previous nominee John Kerry – supporting civil unions over complete marriage equality, which also happens to be a position that is quite popular with the general electorate, and had at least plurality support in 2004; meanwhile, as that link shows, a ban on any recognition (the position typically associated with conservative GOP politicians) now has less support than does total marriage equality.
Instead, the far simpler explanation would have been that people who are likely to turn out in increased numbers to vote on referenda banning same sex marriage and/or civil unions are people who are virtual locks to vote for any Republicans on the ballot no matter what issues are at stake. But, of course, this is all academic, since the above-referenced study makes clear that anti-SSM/civil union referenda actually increased turnout more amongst liberals seeking to oppose the referenda than it increased turnout amongst conservatives seeking to pass them.
And let’s be honest: the notion that gay rights are issues that tend to help Democrats more than Republicans should be intuitively true. By and large, civil rights for gays have no conceivable adverse effects on anyone, no matter what the Maggie Gallaghers of the world claim. But the lack of equal civil rights for gays has an obvious, direct, and appalling effect on a specific element of the electorate. People, whatever their political worldview, show up to vote primarily because of things that they care about, things that they think will directly affect them. In the case of gay rights, that means 3-4 percent of the electorate, and (to a lesser extent) the close friends and families thereof. Even amongst social conservatives, few are going to be so consumed by their hatred of civil rights for gays as to make it the primary or decisive factor in their showing up to the polls to pull the lever for the guy with the (R) next to his name.
*Just to be clear: everything in this post is in reference to the effect of gay rights on Democrats nationally. There may be occasional individual local races where gay rights directly hurt Democratic candidates.