In California, the presidential race is taking a back seat to gay marriage.

In California, the presidential race is taking a back seat to gay marriage.

In California, the presidential race is taking a back seat to gay marriage.

A guide to the swing states.
Oct. 15 2008 4:00 PM

Obama vs. McCain vs. Gay Marriage

In California, the presidential race is taking a back seat to gay marriage.

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Late last month, the Proposition 8 campaign hit on what seems to be its most effective argument against gay marriage: that if the court's ruling stands, kindergartners will be "indoctrinated" into the gay lifestyle. They've pushed the message in a couple of goofily creative TV ads now blanketing the airwaves. The more outrageous spot features a girl who comes home from school to show her mother a book her teacher has given her—King & King, a fairy tale about a young prince who doesn't show much interest in getting together with a princess. "I learned how a prince can marry a prince and I can marry a princess!" the girl in the ad tells her mother. An announcer declares that under California law, schools are required to teach kids about marriage, and that even if parents object, "teaching children about gay marriage will happen here unless we pass Proposition 8." The Proposition 8 slogan: "Protect Our Children. Restore Marriage."


The first time I saw these ads, I thought Proposition 8 was sunk: Is this the best the anti-gay marriage side can muster? An obviously tangential "Think of the children!" campaign? What's more, the ad is misleading: Although state law offers health-education guidelines for school districts to follow, it does not mandate a curriculum, and it explicitly allows parents to pull children out of any health classes they may find objectionable. In the summer, when the Proposition 8 campaign attempted to add language about schools teaching gay marriage on the statewide ballot pamphlet, a Sacramento Court found the claim "false and misleading."

But then, last week, a school in San Francisco arranged for a class of first graders to take a field trip to City Hall to toss rose petals and blow bubbles at their lesbian teacher's wedding. The trip, which has set conservative blogs on fire, seemed tailor-made to prop up the anti-gay marriage side's argument—San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, whose cocky stand on the issue doesn't play well in other parts of the state, even officiated at the wedding. In May, Newsom told a cheering crowd of supporters that gay marriage is going to be legal "whether you like it or not," a quote that has ended up in ads by people who don't like it. Now the Proposition 8 campaign has a concrete example of schoolkids being forced to hew to San Francisco's gay agenda, and they're sure to pummel voters with that message in the days before the election.

From afar, California is often seen as a liberal haven. Sure, Bill Clinton won the state by 14 points in 1992, and ever since, the state's electoral horde—55 votes, 20 percent of the threshold necessary to win the White House—have been a lock for Democrats. Yet between 1952 and 1988, the Golden State burned bright red, voting for a Democratic presidential candidate only once (Lyndon Johnson in 1964). Nixon and Reagan—homestate boys—won handily, and in 1988, George H.W. Bush eked out a respectable margin. And voters here have a history of passing conservative ballot initiatives. Yes, we've legalized medical marijuana and funded stem cell research; but we have also severely restricted property taxes, denied medical services to illegal immigrants, prohibited affirmative action at public universities, and forced sex offenders to wear GPS tracking devices. Californians have twice rejected measures to require minors to inform their parents before seeking abortions, but polls suggest that the proposal will pass this year.

At least 11,000 same-sex couples have gotten married in California since the summer, and now many are rushing to get hitched before their fellow citizens close the door for good. Slots for gay weddings at San Francisco City Hall are booked through the election. Ceremonies take place every Friday. Whether those marriages will still be legal if Proposition 8 passes is a matter of intense legal debate. But for now, at least, watching the brides and grooms stream out of the rotunda is a wonderful way to spend the afternoon.

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