Economics trumps social issues and all else during times of financial turmoil. Even the consequential U.S. presidential campaign has been overshadowed by the worldwide economic meltdown that has devoured retirement savings and left the credit markets gasping for breath.
Nonetheless, the Nov. 4 election will mark a huge social change in America, with the election of either the first black president or the first woman vice president. Election Day 2008 could also be a watershed for millions of gay and lesbian Americans who seek marriage equality. Initiatives are on the ballot to ban same-sex marriage in Arizona, Florida and California, the latter home to nearly one in nine Americans.
In California, the key battleground, religious conservatives and other traditionalists are seeking to overturn a May ruling by the state Supreme Court that legalized same-sex marriage. (Same-sex matrimony was first made legal in Massachusetts in 2004. This month, the Connecticut Supreme Court brought the number of states that recognize such marriages to three.) The advocates of a same-sex marriage ban in California had wanted their initiative — Proposition 8 — described as a state constitutional amendment that would allow marriage only “between a man and a woman.” But state Attorney General Jerry Brown rejected that wording and decided Proposition 8 should be described as seeking to “eliminate the right of same-sex couples to marry.” Legally, this may be a distinction without a difference, but in a close election the wording of the measure could prove decisive.
Is the election close? A respected political survey, The Field Poll, this month found Proposition 8 losing by 17 points, but same-sex marriage tends to do somewhat better in public opinion surveys than at the ballot box. In 2000, when California voters approved an initiative banning same-sex marriage, the Field Poll showed that the measure would win with 53 percent of the vote. It received 61 percent. This was the initiative struck down by the state Supreme Court; Proposition 8 would overturn that ruling and write the same-sex marriage ban into the state Constitution. Another reason to be skeptical of polls showing Proposition 8 trailing is that supporters of the initiative have more financial resources than their opponents and hence more television advertising.
Still, even supporters of Proposition 8 concede that public attitudes on same-sex marriage are shifting. Although a Los Angeles Times poll after the state Supreme Court decision showed voters opposing same-sex marriage by a margin of 52 percent to 41 percent, they split evenly on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s decision not to support Proposition 8. Unsurprisingly, the poll showed that voters under 45 are more tolerant of same-sex marriage than older voters. Opponents of Proposition 8 hope that a surge of younger voters to the polls in behalf of Sen. Barack Obama will give them an advantage even though both Obama and Sen. John McCain oppose same-sex marriage.
Organized campaigns for equality tend to prevail in the United States — but hardly overnight. Women started campaigning for the right to vote in the 1840s; it took more than 70 years to pass and ratify the 19th Amendment. In 1896, a notorious decision of the U.S. Supreme Court upheld school segregation under the doctrine of “separate but equal;” it took nearly six decades before the high court under Chief Justice Earl Warren reversed itself and ruled that segregated schools were inherently discriminatory. Nearly every state once banned inter-racial marriage; 16 states still did so in 1967 when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down such statutes. Legal protections for gays and lesbians are of even more recent vintage. Not until 1996 did the Supreme Court overturn a Colorado initiative that had barred municipalities from enacting laws to prevent discrimination against “homosexual citizens.” Not until 2003 did the high court, in overturning a Texas statute, decide that “intimate adult consensual conduct” between people of the same sex was constitutionally protected. Both decisions, incidentally, were written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, an appointee of President Ronald Reagan.
This columnist does not do predictions: I’ll wait for the verdict of the voters on the presidential election and all ballot measures. But the decisions favoring same-sex marriage by the California high court in May and by the Connecticut high court this month, both by a single vote, suggest that the legal system is moving, albeit slowly, toward recognizing that gays and lesbians are fully equal under the Constitution. This means they can marry whomever they please.
Full equality in a political sense also means that someone in any racial, religious or ethnic group — or any woman — should have a chance to win the highest office in the land. The conventional political wisdom in the mid-20th century held that the United States wasn’t ready to elect a Roman Catholic as president. It was widely believed that the only Catholic nominee for president — Alfred E. Smith in 1928 — had lost because of his religion. In truth, Herbert Hoover probably would have beaten any Democrat in that prosperous year before the stock market crash, but it’s also true that Smith’s nomination stirred up the Ku Klux Klan and exposed a cesspool of anti-Catholic prejudice. It took John F. Kennedy, the narrowest of winners in 1960, to demonstrate that a Catholic could indeed be elected president. Months earlier, JFK adviser Theodore Sorenson had written a now-famous memo declaring that Kennedy’s Catholicism would win him more votes than it would cost him. This proved prescient.
Racial prejudice is even more potent than religious prejudice. Until the rise of Colin Powell, hardly anyone in America would have believed that the election of a black president was a near-term possibility. Powell chose not to run, but this year Obama has upended orthodox thinking and conventional wisdom by wresting the Democratic presidential nomination from the supposedly unbeatable Hillary Clinton and then taking the lead from McCain as the economy worsened. Obama supporters remain fearful, however, that in the secrecy of the ballot box many whites will vote their racial fears. The notion that race overrides everything else, insulting to America as well as Obama, has been given unmerited currency by media pundits who ought to know better. Some of them have uncritically latched onto a Stanford University study asserting that Obama’s race would cost him 6 percent of the vote.
Now, Frank Newport, who heads the Gallup organization and is one of the nation’s best pollsters, has come along with a 2008 equivalent of Sorenson’s memo. In a complex eight-dimensional analysis that is more sophisticated than the Stanford study, Newport found that slightly more people are likely to vote for Obama because of his race than will vote against him. This includes not only blacks but also some white voters who see this election as a chance to retire shabby stereotypes of American racism. As with same-sex marriage, younger voters are apt to be the least prejudiced. Newport’s study concludes that few voters will cast their ballots based on race and that voters who do will largely cancel each other out.
Let’s hear it for Ted Sorenson and Frank Newport. We’ve come a long way.
— Summerland resident Lou Cannon is a longtime national political writer and acclaimed presidential biographer. His most recent book — co-authored with his son, Carl — is Reagan’s Disciple: George W. Bush’s Troubled Quest for a Presidential Legacy. Cannon also is an editorial adviser to State Net Capitol Journal, which published this column originally.