Gay Marriage Opponents Lost the Election, But They Have Lots of Excuses

How you look at things.
Nov. 19 2012 7:59 AM

Explain Away the Gay

Opponents of same-sex marriage went 0-for-4 in the election. But they have lots of excuses.

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Gay-rights flags at the Democratic National Convention, Sept. 6, 2012

Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Until this year, opponents of same-sex marriage had never lost a statewide referendum. They’d won 32 straight times. Two weeks ago, the tide of public opinion finally overwhelmed them. They lost all four measures on the November ballot—one to ban gay marriage in Minnesota, and three others to permit gay marriage in Maine, Maryland, and Washington.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Are they humbled? Shaken? Worried that the country might be turning against them? Not a bit. The leading conservative lobby on this issue, the National Organization for Marriage, has cooked up a handy set of post-election excuses. Here’s the list.

1. We never really had a shot. Last year, when Minnesota lawmakers voted to put the issue on the 2012 ballot, NOM predicted victory, noting that “deep blue states” such as California, Maryland, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin had rejected gay marriage. In January of this year, NOM released a survey purporting to show that Washington state voters were “not in favor of redefining marriage.” When same-sex marriage advocates in Maine, stung by a previous defeat, filed signatures for a rematch, NOM President Brian Brown scoffed, "The people of Maine are not in favor of redefining marriage, as we showed in 2009. Gay advocates are fooling themselves when they say things have changed.” In February, when Maryland lawmakers voted to legalize the practice, Brown warned them, "The people of Maryland do not support same-sex marriage.” In May, NOM predicted a “clean sweep” of the four ballot measures.

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On Election Day, the clean sweep went the other way. NOM snapped into action. Overnight, the four easy wins became, in retrospect, impossible uphill struggles. “We knew long ago that we faced a difficult political landscape with the four marriage battles occurring in four of the deepest-blue states in America,” Brown pleaded in a Nov. 7 statement. Tom Peters, NOM’s cultural director, told PBS, “Going into these four state fights, we had no illusions. These were deep blue states.” Indeed, Peters marveled, “It`s amazing, with all of the cultural forces trying to redefine marriage, that we’re still here in 2012, just barely seeing some footholds gained in deep blue states.” Those plucky defenders of traditional marriage, holding their ground against all odds as they defend our culture against our culture.

2. We have the momentum. All year, NOM said it was gaining ground. In May, Brown asserted:

Actual vote percentages in favor of traditional marriage are rising. In 2008 in California, the Prop 8 constitutional amendment on traditional marriage passed with 52% of the vote. Then in 2009 in Maine, 53% of voters stood for traditional marriage and rejected same-sex marriage legislation. In 2010, 56% of Iowa voters rejected three Supreme Court judges who had imposed gay marriage in that state. And now more than 60% of North Carolina voters have passed a constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman. There is a clear trend line, and it is moving in our direction.

In September, NOM touted a poll that suggested only 48 percent of likely Maine voters would support same-sex marriage. NOM’s press release crowed, “New Poll: Gay Marriage Under 50 Percent in Maine!” Citing this and other surveys, NOM argued that support for gay marriage was “falling further behind” in Maine and would fail again. On Oct. 26, Brown told reporters, "The momentum is clearly behind our efforts to protect marriage in the four states voting on November 6th. Pro-marriage activists have always won the closing argument and this November will be no different.” On Nov. 2, Brown repeated that in all four states, “the polls are trending in our favor.”

So when supporters of gay marriage topped 50 percent and beat NOM in all four states on Nov. 6, Brown had some explaining to do. Were NOM’s claims of pre-election momentum fake? Didn’t four losses after the previous wins in Maine and California signify a decline for his side? Not at all. “The polls were moving,” Brown assured NPR’s Neal Conan on Nov. 14, but “we weren't able to get over the finish line” because NOM lacked the “resources necessary” to prevail. In other words: We used to win these states, and we were ahead again this time, but somehow we ended up behind, though we were gaining all along. So send us more money.

3. It’s Obama’s fault. In April, NOM endorsed Mitt Romney for president. In May, when President Obama endorsed same-sex marriage, NOM declared war: “NOM Promises Pro-Marriage Americans Will Defeat Obama This November for Abandoning Marriage.” NOM named five “swing states” where marriage would be a “defining issue” against Obama: Ohio, North Carolina, Virginia, Florida, and Nevada. On Nov. 2, NOM added Wisconsin and Pennsylvania to the list of states in which “we are proud to work” against the president’s re-election.

Four days later, NOM came up empty. Obama won six of its seven targeted states, plus the four states with marriage ballot measures. So NOM reversed its spin. Opposition to gay marriage hadn’t failed to defeat Obama. It had miraculously survived him. His re-election was a mysterious force of nature, like Hurricane Sandy. “This was sort of an Obama wave,” Brown told NPR. “A lot of people are looking up and saying, ‘I cannot believe the turnout.’ That turnout did help those that wanted to redefine marriage.”

Inundated by this wave, opponents of gay marriage had proved their potency not by electing Romney but by outpolling him. In the four ballot-measure states, “we outperformed the Republican presidential candidate by over six points, on average,” said Brown. By adding this cushion to Romney’s 48.4 percent of the popular vote, Brown calculated, "Had marriage been put to a national vote, the evidence suggests that our side would have captured 55% of the popular vote.” Indeed, based on its privately commissioned poll of “800 randomly selected people who actually voted,” NOM reported that 60 percent of respondents agreed that "marriage is between one man and one woman.” These figures, of course, were far more reliable than the national joint media exit poll, in which a 49 to 46 percent plurality of more than 5,200 voters said yes to the question, “Should your state legally recognize same-sex marriage?”

4. We still have the blacks. In February, NOM warned Democratic state legislators in Maryland that they’d “have to answer to their constituents, including the upwards of 70% of African Americans who oppose redefining marriage." Later, NOM launched radio ads in North Carolina, promising to use black conservatism on gay marriage as a wedge to turn African-Americans against Obama.

Both threats fizzled. In North Carolina, 96 percent of blacks voted for Obama. In Maryland, the percentage of blacks opposing gay marriage fell to 54 percent—and black women voted narrowly to legalize it—fatally depriving NOM of the margins it had expected. “The majority still supported traditional marriage,” Brown argued, making the best of the debacle. That spin, too, was undermined by the national exit poll: Blacks supported gay marriage 51 to 41 percent, and Latinos supported it 59 to 32 percent. Yet Brown continues to peddle his issue as a bridge-builder for the GOP: “There are key groups like the African-American community, like Latinos and others, that we can reach out to.”

NOM is far from dead. Its record is 32-4. And when Brown says cultural change isn’t always a one-way street, he’s right. But the excuses he has concocted for this year’s skunking won’t survive further defeats. If same-sex marriage keeps rising in national polls, and blacks keep shifting, and NOM starts to lose in purple states when Obama’s no longer on the ballot, the myth of the fearsome traditional-marriage lobby will unravel. And there won’t be a closet big enough for NOM to hide in.

William Saletan's latest short takes on the news, via Twitter:

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