The narrative du jour is that ideological gridlock will persist no matter who wins the presidency tonight (or tomorrow, or next week, or next month). True enough. But if we look under the radar, we can find some surprisingly good news, a clear indicator of social progress: Republican presidential strategists no longer believe that it’s good politics to demonize gay people.
It’s amazing to chart the difference between 2004 and 2012. Eight years ago, Bush political swami Karl Rove was determined to gin up turnout among Christian evangelicals who, in his calculations, had been insufficiently enthused in 2000, and who thus fueled W’s popular-vote defeat. And so it came to pass that the ’04 Bush team arranged for anti-gay marriage referenda to appear on the ballots in 11 states. As numerous political science scholars have since determined, those referenda (which warned that scary gay married people would sink western civilization) helped attract an outsize number of Christian evangelical voters – particularly in pivotal Ohio, where some analysts believe that the heftier base turnout was pivotal in putting Bush over the top and back into the White House. That’s what a “wedge” issue is supposed to do.
But this year? Mitt Romney and his flaks haven’t touched the gay marriage issue, much less nurtured any reactionary referenda. Moreover, the entire zeitgeist has been reversed. Gay marriage is on the ballot today in three states – Maine, Maryland, and Washington State – but these are all affirmative efforts to legalize it, with serious support money from prominent donors, including billionaire hedge fund manager Paul Singer, a Republican. And even though Romney voiced his general opposition to gay marriage during the GOP primaries, he hasn’t criticized those ballot measures. Not even once.
Why not? Because Romney in the closing weeks has sought to morph into a moderate – and in 2012, targeting gay people is bad politics. In a span of only eight years, tolerance has become the centrist position. As former Bush strategist Mark McKinnon remarked not long ago, “The wedge has lost its edge.”
As a result, marriage equality activists appeared poised to win in either Maine, Maryland, Washington state, or some combination thereof. Indeed, if it happens anywhere tonight (the Washington referendum has been endorsed by the heavy hitters at Amazon, Starbucks, and Microsoft), it will be the first time in history that voters have chosen to legalize gay marriage at the ballot box.
Victory is not a foregone conclusion, of course – even though the state polls look good, particularly in Maine, it’s possible that anti-gay respondents have been reluctant to tell the pollsters how they really feel – but the national trend line has long been clear. When the nonpartisan Pew Research Center first asked about gay marriage in 1996, only 27 percent of Americans approved; these days, Pew finds a thin plurality in favor of gay marriage (46-44). And since support is greatest among young adults, it’s clear that gay marriage is a demographic inevitability — and opposing it is a political loser.
And while Team Mitt has gone silent on the issue, President Obama has publicly supported those three referenda; moreover, the new Democratic platform (which nobody reads, but still) has a plank endorsing gay marriage. The president’s strategists have calculated that while he risks a backlash within his base – from socially conservative blacks and evangelical Hispanics – he’s buttressing his centrist creds and shoring up his shaky support among young people. Granted, there has long been speculation that Obama’s support for gay marriage could hurt him politically in North Carolina tonight (due to potential hostility from some black church leaders), but that traditionally red state was never a sure bet for Obama in 2012 anyway.
Bottom line: Whatever else happens tonight, consider it a victory for America that the gay-averse Karl Rove game plan is so eight years ago, an artifact from an intolerant era. Romney’s abiding silence on those referenda are a testament to how far we’ve traveled in such a short time.
What should we watch for tonight, at least during the hours of maximum wakefulness?
Start with Virginia, where the polls close at seven p.m. If turnout in the racially diverse and populous northern suburbs is strong, relative to the downstate conservative towns, Romney is at serious risk in that key swing state. And watch to see if third-party conservative Virgil Goode is making a good showing. Republicans have been worried that he might become the GOP’s 2012 version of Ralph Nader (for those of you who remember your Florida 2000 history).
Obviously watch Ohio, where the polls close at 7:30. Ohio could be the ballgame, but keep tabs on aforementioned North Carolina, which also closes at 7:30. If that supposedly Mitt-trending state remains too close to call as the hours tick by, that’s probably a good sign for Obama nationally.
Conversely, we have Pennsylvania, which closes at eight. If Pennsylvania (which hasn’t voted Republican since 1988) remains too close to call as the hours tick by, that could foreshadow serious problems for Obama nationally.
Also, watch for the national exit poll numbers (not the partial numbers that might leak during the day). This evening, if it appears that white voters are grabbing a bigger share of the turnout than they did in 2008 – when they were 74 percent of the electorate – that would probably be bad for Obama. He’s banking on a more racially diverse turnout. It’s the facts of life.
And tonight, if you get sick of the usual suspects on MSNBC and Fox News, try WHYY television and radio. The official word is that yours truly “will rotate between TV and radio through the night.” When I’m not live-tweeting, anyway.
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