It is the winners’ prerogative to write history, and within 48 hours after Election Day, the GOP had explained its victories: the president was re-elected because a majority of voters cast their votes based on moral values.
In November exit polls, many voters identified the moral issues as abortion and gay marriage. Before the election, evangelical Christians sought to register the 30 percent of conservative Christians who didn’t vote last time, calling their campaign: “I vote values.”
These volunteers vigorously promoted their conclusion that the anti-gay vote tipped the election in the Republicans’ favor. All of a sudden, a shadow was cast on the legal gains that gays had achieved in recent years. The nation forgot that Howard Dean started his campaign in part because he had signed civil union legislation. By recognizing this household arrangement, he obtained a national base and was almost nominated by the Democrats. Nobody reminded us that a year ago the Supreme Court overturned the nation’s sodomy laws.
Some Democrats accepted the Republican explanation and a pessimistic few said gays had no friends. This view was contested by those who pointed out that the same Republicans who vehemently oppose gay marriage also oppose gay bashing. Because Americans of all political persuasion now talk about gays, the GOP rap also includes throwaway lines about letting people live their lives in peace. Without much debate, Republicans have reached a consensus opposing violence against gays.
The GOP message is that Americans don’t support gay marriage and the Democrats are in trouble for supporting it. The notion that the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community is a burden on the Democratic Party worries Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, who is concerned that could have an adverse effect on Congress if and when it votes again on a constitutional amendment banning gay marriages. The rise of this new conventional wisdom could make some Democratic members of Congress “squishy.” Foreman foresees a difficult fight over this amendment in Washington.
This will be an important test of LGBT resolve. Will depression immobilize us, or will we open our pocket books for donations, and start transforming public opinion?
Political scientists in the meantime are taking a different tack. They are asking if concerns about gay marriage put the Republicans over the top. There are two possible arguments. The soft one is the easiest to understand. According to the Pew Research Center, when voters leaving the polls were asked what the most important issue was—moral values was mentioned by 14 percent of the voters. However, if the questioner affirmatively mentioned moral values, then 22 percent of the voters said it was important. The discrepancy suggests that the issue of same-sex marriage didn’t burn fiercely in the heart of the voters. In fact, when voters were not given a list of issues, the Iraq war was far and away the most important issue mentioned.
The evidence for this interpretation grew when voters were asked what did “moral values” mean. Forty-four percent of the voters mentioned specific social issues like gay marriage or abortion, but the majority of voters mentioned qualities like character or referred to religion or general values.
Other political scientists are drawing pictures of who are the “moral values” voters. In papers prepared for the National Gay Task Force by Ken Sherrill of Hunter College, several important points emerge. First and foremost, eight of the eleven states on Election Day which held referenda on state constitutional gay marriage bans were uncontested states that went for Bush. Michigan, Ohio and Oregon apparently do not support the claim that moral values put Bush over the top.
John Kerry won Oregon and Michigan, getting more votes than Al Gore did four years ago. Kerry won even among those voters supporting the amendment to ban gay marriages. If the gay marriage ban was attractive to swing voters, it failed miserably in delivering these two states to Bush.
In Ohio, Kerry improved his showing over Gore, but not by enough to overcome the advantage that the Republicans had. In these states there was no dramatic shift of swing voters driven by gay marriage into the arms of the Republican Party.
Sherrill looked closely at those voters who mentioned moral values. They were not swing voters but part of the Republican core. They were more likely to attend weekly church services, likely to say the war in Iraq was going well, and 31 percent of the moral value voters said their financial situation was improving. This group also supported Republican congressional candidates.
“Moral values is less of an explanation or a cause of voting behavior, and more a correlate or consequence of liking President Bush and supporting his policies,” said the Task Force report.
Sherrill found that 59 percent of the voters who said that “moral issues were most important” in determining their vote also identified themselves as Republican compared to only 38 percent of the electorate at large and that 84 percent of these voters made up their minds to vote for Bush one month before Election Day. This makes them core voters rather than swing voters.
Clearly, gay marriage played a major role in rallying religious voters. It gave their convictions an intensity that propelled turn-out. The Democrats offered no burning cause to rally voters, and they never generated the excitement and righteousness of the Republicans. One key to Democratic success in the future will be finding its moral footing and making its convictions know to Americans. The Democratic Party is the party of the people, and it has to make that vision the key to all the messages it offers.
The bottom line is that the LGBT community cannot let its disappointment turn into apathy.