Debate over same-sex marriage could have lasting electoral effects

In one of the most important years ever in the battle for gay rights, it would be remiss to overlook the electoral effects of the issue on the 2012 presidential race.

Earlier this year, President Obama reversed himself to become the first president to back gay marriage, and this week, the Democratic Party came closer to adopting language supporting same-sex marriage in its party platform.

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Meanwhile, a fast-food restaurant, Chick-fil-A, has become the latest cultural flashpoint in the battle after its president opposed, on biblical grounds, gay marriage earlier this month.

Predictably, that raised the ire of gay-marriage advocates and prompted some Democratic mayors to threaten potential Chick-fil-A expansion into their cities.

Conservatives, however, tweeted their support for the company and visited various franchises for a meal.

For their parts, both Obama and presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney have remained silent on the Chick-fil-A fracas, but Romney’s allies and surrogates have fought back hard.

Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who’s said to be a front-runner for the vice-presidential nomination, unloaded over the weekend on the prospect of the restaurant being frozen out of expansion into Boston and Chicago.

“It’s chilling. I mean, it’s stunning. It is jaw-dropping,” he noted at a North Carolina roundtable.

On Sunday, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin told a crowd in Texas that she “Love[d] me some Chick-fil-A,” and tweeted a picture of herself at the restaurant on the way back to the airport.

And former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) are asking followers to join them for a Chick-fil-A appreciation day Wednesday.

Clearly, some Republicans see political gain in using the chain as a symbol for upholding conservative values like traditional marriage.

But could the battle over gay marriage help Romney in November?

There’s a strain of working-class whites who live in the heartland and are known, affectionately, as “Reagan Democrats.” These voters tend to be more fiscally liberal but socially conservative, and theoretically, the battle over gay rights could push them into Romney’s camp.

Only problem? Most of them are already in his camp!

According to the latest Quinnipiac University poll, Romney leads Obama among whites without college degrees 53 to 33 percent. That’s not too far off from John McCain’s 18-point victory over Obama with those voters in 2008, and that means Romney might have already maxed out his support among the “Reagan Democrats.”

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, says that “those Reagan Democrats have long since become operational Republicans. They may claim to be independents, but at least for president, they almost consistently vote GOP.”

But even if polling shows that those voters already support Romney, there’s no guarantee they’ll actually go to the polls and vote for him.

The gay-marriage wars, though, could turn them out on Election Day.

On Huckabee’s radio show, the president of the National Organization for Marriage, Brian Brown, said Chick-fil-A supporters had the power to fight back “through voting,” and while he didn’t explicitly cry “Vote Romney!” the inference was obvious.

Matt Lewis, a conservative columnist for The Daily Caller, tells The Hill that the Chick-fil-A controversy perfectly encapsulates the war over gay marriage.

“Many traditional Americans,” he says, “sense their values and institutions are under attack — that nothing is ‘sacred’ … not even a chicken sandwich, so yes, I think this resonates in a way that an overtly political story would not — could not — precisely because it hits closer to home.”

Whether it’s Obama’s decision on gay marriage or even something as simple as a fast-food-maker’s beliefs, there’s evidence that social conservatives are growing increasingly motivated to cast their votes against Obama.

In the most recent Quinnipiac poll, evangelicals had higher levels of enthusiasm than non-evangelical Protestants and Catholics. Forty-two percent said they were more excited about this year’s election than past ones, while only 24 percent said they were less enthused.

That was the highest number in any Quinnipiac survey yet this year.

Still, gay issues might not be the electoral gimme they once were for Republicans. Again, the Chick-fil-A controversy is indicative of a changing electorate.

Before the blowup, a YouGuv poll of brand popularity showed that Chick-fil-A’s index score stood at a healthy 65 percent, nearly 20 percent higher than the industry’s average score. But after the blowup, the restaurant’s score dipped all the way to 39 percent, just below the industry’s average.

And public sentiment is clearly moving toward the gay-marriage cause.

A recent Gallup poll showed that more Americans support gay marriage than oppose it, albeit narrowly, and many think it was political expediency that actually led Obama to reverse himself on the issue.

To wit: A USA Today/Gallup poll found that 51 percent approved of his announcement, while 45 percent disapproved.

But there are two counters to the idea that Obama helped himself. The first is that, in the same poll, twice as many said Obama’s move would make them less likely to support him than more likely.

The second is that the swing states, which will decide the election, tend to be more culturally conservative, and two crucial battlegrounds recently confirmed that.

In May, 61 percent of North Carolina voters approved a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, and Sabato notes that Iowans voted to oust three judges who supported gay marriage in the 2010 elections.

In the end, Romney could end up being the quiet beneficiary of that distaste, no matter how quiet he remains on the issue.

As Lewis says, “[Social conservatives] won’t specifically be voting for Romney as much as they will be voting against the forces they perceive as attempting to transform America into a secular, post-Christian nation.”