Why same-sex marriage seems lost as an election issue

Update (12/7/12): Supreme Court to hear gay marriage cases

Lyle Denniston, who has covered the Supreme Court for 54 years, explains what’s at stake after the court’s historic decision on Friday to hear two cases about same-sex marriage.

Link: Court to rule on same-sex marriage: What’s at stake

Original story follows:

Despite a lot of publicity during parts of the current presidential campaign, the issue of same-sex marriage has been put on the back burner by the Obama and Romney campaigns.

Photo by Flickr user Fibonacci Blue

Earlier this year, President Barack Obama made history when he voiced his support for same-sex unions. Obama’s critics said his move was a tactic to get more votes, since he didn’t issue a statement of support before the election cycle began.

However, polling evidence right after the May 9th announcement showed the president’s statement didn’t affect American’s opinions on the issue.

In August, the Republicans made traditional marriage a central plank in their party platform, including a proposed constitutional amendment. News of the decision had leaked out several days before the Tampa convention, and it caused a stir in the media. But it was quickly forgotten in the election cycle.

And in addition, 31 states have their own amendments banning same-sex marriages.  Other state referendums on same-sex marriages will be decided by voters in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington this November.

So why is same-sex marriage mostly missing from the campaign trail?

Today, the key messaging of the presidential campaigns targets leadership, vision, foreign affairs, jobs, the economy, health care, taxes, Medicare and the candidates’ speaking mistakes.

Same-sex marriage doesn’t appear in the daily news coverage of hot campaign topics, either.

But the issue will be at the center of the political landscape in 2013, as two key cases are possibly heading to the Supreme Court, involving the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and California’s Proposition 8.

The Supreme Court could decide as soon as Monday if it will hear cases involving DOMA and Prop 8 in the coming year. The justices could wait or include more cases related to DOMA.

This Monday, the Supreme Court will issue a list of cases it won’t hear in the coming term. If either DOMA or Prop 8 makes that list, the current rulings at a lower-court level go into effect.

The same-sex marriage issue will also likely pop up in one of the three upcoming presidential debates.

One reason that presidential candidates have skewed away from same-sex marriage is that it doesn’t rank among the top national voter issues, based on data gathered by polling firms.

The conclusion seems to be, from the polling evidence, that people have strong opinions about same-sex marriage that candidates can’t influence, and voters have other concerns about the economy that are higher priorities to them.

In a June survey, CNN said that voters have mostly made up their minds on the issue.

“Sentiment is strong on both sides of the debate, with more than three-quarters of supporters and opponents of same-sex marriage saying that they feel strongly about that issue,” it said.

Back in April, Pew Research ranked gay marriage as the 18th most-important issue that voters see as key to their choice at the polls—out of 18 issues asked in the survey.

Another reason is that Democrats have become heavily in favor of same-sex marriage since 2004, and recent data from Pew Research shows that a majority of independent voters are also in favor of same-sex marriage.

In July, Pew said 65 percent of Democrats favored same-sex marriages and 51 percent of Independents had a similar opinion. CNN’s study showed 60 percent of independents favored same-sex marriage.

Only 24 percent of Republicans approved for same-sex marriage in the July survey from Pew.

Also, in our current AP-National Constitution Center poll, 53 percent of Americans were in favor of same-sex marriage.

The independents pose a problem for the Romney campaign, since the GOP contender must get a big share of their votes to beat President Obama in November.

If Romney makes same-sex marriage an issue with independents, he’s speaking to voters who mostly disagree with him and want to hear about other issues.

Likewise, Obama doesn’t have to speak at great length to his supporters about same-sex marriage, since most of those voters already agree with him.

A longer-term issue is the strong support for same-sex marriage among younger Americans.

In a June survey from CNN, about 73 of people under the age of 34 approved of same-sex marriages.

David Leonhardt spelled out the argument in a June 2012 New York Times opinion piece, which looks at another Pew study about how people vote as they get older.

“Until recently, as the presidential results from the 1970s through the 1990s make clear, Americans did not grow much more conservative as they aged,” he said.

He cites Pew research that shows today’s generation under the age of 30 is as socially liberal as the numbers on same-sex marriage indicate, and it will probably stay that way.

“We’ve got a generation of young people who are more socially liberal and more open to activist government,” says Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew center, which has done some of the most extensive generational polling. “They are quite distinct.”

Scott Bomboy is the editor-in-chief of the National Constitution Center.

Constitution Daily would like to thank a group of 60 students at Pennridge High School who helped develop the idea for this story, based on  a workshop we did on journalism at their school.

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