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Gay marriage redux

An inaccurate storyline is already developing around the 2008 election, built on a mythology about 2004.

The story goes like this — California’s decision to legalize gay marriage, and a state initiative to ban it, will play a central role in this year’s presidential election, as it did four years ago. Purveyors of this narrative apparently have not consulted those most intimately involved.

In a panel discussion organized by the American Association of Political Consultants this week in Sacramento, the key consultants on both sides of California’s gay marriage battle agreed that the issue did not get onto the ballot in response to national politics and that it would likely have little effect on the presidential balloting.

The California consultants supported an analysis offered here, four years ago, arguing that neither initiatives in general, nor this one in particular, add to turnout in a presidential election year or significantly alter the bases of voter decisionmaking for the nation’s highest office.

In 2004, initiatives outlawing gay marriage appeared on the ballot in 11 states. John Kerry won two of them — Oregon and Michigan — but no one could reasonably assert he would have won Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma or Utah if gay marriage had not been on the ballot in those states.

Less easily dispensed with is Ohio. However, beneath the argument of those who point to the centrality of gay marriage in the outcome is the bizarre contention that a significant number of voters didn’t really care to decide one of the closest and most important presidential elections in Ohio’s history, but were motivated to go to the polls to ensure the anti-gay marriage initiative passed with 61 percent, not just 60.

 Data make clear there were, in fact, few such people, as sophisticated statistical techniques reveal that less than one-half of 1 percent of Ohio voters cast a ballot on the marriage initiative but not in the presidential race. Four times as many voted for president while skipping the initiative.

Across the country, statistical analysis of turnout indicates that past participation, along with the money spent in each state, significantly affected turnout. The presence of a competitive Senate or governor’s race may have had some effect as well. However, the presence of a gay marriage initiative on the ballot had no consistent impact on turnout.

In a different kind of election year, this initiative, or others, could influence turnout. If the top race on the ballot was for, say, mosquito control board, one could imagine vast numbers of additional voters flocking to the polls to decide an issue like gay marriage, but not in a presidential year.

Of course, initiative committees can serve as conduits for evading federal campaign finance laws. Since contributions to initiatives are unlimited, someone who wanted to turn out McCain voters could contribute millions to the anti-gay marriage effort — millions they could not legally donate to the McCain campaign or the Republican Party. Such tactics didn’t win Ohio for Bush in ’04, however, and will not put California in McCain’s column in ’08 either.

Some might posit a different mechanism — gay marriage in California will affect the presidential race, they say, not by juicing turnout, but by changing the topic of debate. Evidence of this phenomenon in 2004 is largely nonexistent, and it is hard to imagine, with the economy, war, energy and healthcare looming so large, that gay marriage will suddenly dislodge them, particularly in states where it is not on the ballot.

So while casting initiatives as the secret determinant of presidential elections makes for an interesting narrative, it is largely a work of fiction.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004.