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.

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.

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.

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