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.

Read the rest of the Swingers series.

No one doubts that Barack Obama will win California by a double-digit margin this year. In some northern counties, he may well hit 90 percent. Yet politics in this nonswing blue state still defy prediction. California's 2008 ballot is a thicket of closely contested, closely watched social issues. And on some of the biggest questions, blue voters—in one case, the very same voters that Obama is counting on—look ready to swing red.

Among other state initiatives, Californians will vote on a measure to ban gay marriage; to require parental notification for abortions for minors; and to institute a program of rehabilitation, rather than incarceration, for nonviolent drug offenders. Even the beasts have a stake in the election: Proposition 2 requires that cows, pigs, chickens, and other farm animals "be allowed, for the majority of the day, to fully extend their limbs or wings, lie down, stand up and turn around." (The New York Times has come out in favor of the measure, while a number of local papers, including the Los Angeles Times, oppose it on grounds that it'll damage the state's huge agriculture industry.) In surveys, a large majority of voters say they'll pull the lever in the animals' favor.

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But on the question of whether human beings will be allowed to lie down and extend their limbs with whomever they please, Californians are much more uncertain. In 2000, residents voted overwhelmingly to ban same-sex marriage. The state Supreme Court struck down that initiative this spring, saying such a ban required a change to the state constitution, and gay couples up and down the coast have been marrying ever since. Now comes Proposition 8, which would enshrine a ban on same-sex marriage into the California Constitution.

Early polls showed the measure tanking. Liberals were buoyed: Not only were they going to win the White House; they would also see their neighbors repudiate the 2000 vote and embrace an unmistakably libertine (if not strictly "liberal") social policy. But over the last month, proponents of Proposition 8 have pulled in more campaign cash (40 percent of it from Mormons) and launched an aggressive TV ad campaign. Now the anti-gay-marriage measure looks likely to pass. Says Yvette Martinez, political director of No on 8: "I think maybe we got a little complacent."

There's an interesting demographic wrinkle to the debate over Proposition 8. Obama has come out against the measure—but his supporters are another matter. The Democrat is expected to bring a surge of black and Latino voters to the polls on Election Day. This spells trouble for gay marriage; in some surveys (PDF), minority voters have expressed much greater support for banning same-sex marriage than have whites. Chip White, a spokesman for the pro-Proposition 8 campaign, stopped short of saying that Obama's presence on the ballot will help the measure. But he did point out that the campaign plans a big push in minority communities, especially through churches and other religious networks. "Traditional marriage initiatives have historically been supported by African-Americans," he says. "We think this one will be no different."

Martinez of the anti-Proposition 8 campaign, meanwhile, says that her side has also begun to tap minority communities, and several prominent black ministers as well as La Opinión, the large Spanish-language Los Angeles daily, oppose the gay-marriage ban. Still, Martinez concedes, minority voters could be a problem. "We think these communities have to hear our message a little stronger," she says.