Did Barack Obama help push California's Proposition 8 over the top?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Nov. 5 2008 4:23 PM

Props to Obama

Did he help push California's gay-marriage ban over the top?

Also in Slate, Kenji Yoshino puzzled through what happens to gay marriage in California and elsewhere now that Proposition 8 has passed. 

Supporters of California Proposition 8 which to ban Gay marriage. Click image to expand.
Proposition 8 supporters in California

Barack Obama won California overwhelmingly on Tuesday—his 24-point victory was the largest winning margin of any presidential candidate in modern times, including former Gov. Ronald Reagan. Obama did so well in part because he brought a new wave of African-American voters to the polls. But for Golden State liberals, minority turnout was a mixed blessing. Proposition 8, the California ballot initiative to ban gay marriage, passed by about four percentage points. According to exit polls, Obama's African-American supporters helped put Proposition 8 over the top. That's the irony of Obama's victory: Had black turnout matched levels of previous elections, the vote on the gay-marriage ban—which trailed in the polls for much of the summer—would have been much closer. It might even have failed.

California's same-sex-marriage fight began in the spring, when the state Supreme Court overturned a previous ballot initiative that defined marriage as an institution between a man and woman. The court ruled that the ban violated the state constitution; Proposition 8 sought to address that problem by writing the same-sex restriction into the Constitution. As I wrote last month, many political analysts predicted the initiative would face a tough battle. Since June, tens of thousands of gay couples have gotten married in California without incident. In a blue state that often favors progressive social policies, polls showed many voters would balk at "eliminating" those couples' "rights," as the initiative put it.

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But Obama brought a huge number of strongly anti-gay-marriage voters to the polls. In 2004, African-American voters made up 6 percent of the California electorate—about 700,000, according to the '04 exit poll. On Tuesday, 10 percent of voters were African-American; all of the state's ballots have yet to be counted, but if total turnout matched or exceeded the level of 2004, it would mean that at least 1.2 million African-Americans turned out to vote. According to the '08 exit poll, blacks favored Proposition 8 by a margin of 70 to 30. (All other ethnic groups were about evenly split on the measure, with white voters leaning slightly against it.) Given these numbers, we can imagine an alternative history: Had 500,000 African-American voters stayed home Tuesday, Proposition 8 would have received 350,000 fewer yes votes and 150,000 fewer no votes. The measure is currently leading by at least 400,000 votes, so the black turnout alone didn't flip it—but the margin would have been significantly closer had Obama's supporters not been out in force.

David McCuan, a political scientist at Sonoma State University, says that over the last 10 years, pollsters have noticed a "generational shift" in California on the issue of gay marriage. Voters, particularly younger ones, have become much more comfortable with the idea of equal rights for gays and lesbians. But that shift, he says, hasn't hit the African-American community. Obama opposed Proposition 8, but only guardedly—and he has always made plain his opposition to gay marriage. What's more, McCuan notes, Obama talks often of his faith and his ties to the black church. As a result, "the type of voter that he brings out in the African-American community, while they vote for Obama at the top of the ticket, they'll vote against gay marriage down the ballot," he says.

But if the anti-gay-marriage side was boosted by a one-time event—the first major-party African-American presidential candidate on the ballot—might supporters of gay marriage win in the future? McCuan says that's plausible. "In the abstract, there's a high level of support for equal rights, particularly among the younger generation." And support is growing fast. In 2000, 61 percent of voters approved of a ban on same-sex marriage; this year, it was down to a bare majority. The "Yes on 8" campaign was particularly well-funded and savvy, blanketing the airwaves with ads suggesting that gay marriage would be taught in schools. If supporters of same-sex marriage wait a few years, and if they can muster as effective a campaign as the one mounted this year by the other side, they could well change the law.

California voters are fickle, McCuan says. "They're driven by the clicker—it's like changing channels. Today the channel is 'Yes on 8,' but I would say in 2010 or more likely 2012, they're going to turn the channel."

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

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