Ask Dr. Popkin: Gay Marriage and the Biden Factor

Let's take a trip back in time -- back a whole two weeks ago, when the Cranbrook Haircut was the dominant making-of-the-president issue, emerging as it did immediately after Barack Obama's comments about his "personal views" on same-sex marriage. Then came the rumored anti-Obama attack ad based on footage of Rev. Jeremiah "God damn America!" Wright and funded by the founder of TD Ameritrade.

In those dimly remembered pre-Cory Booker, pre-Facebook IPO days, I asked Samuel Popkin, author of The Candidate, what his student-of-history perspective told us about how the campaigns were presenting these issues and how they were likely to matter in the campaign. He, like me, has been otherwise engaged for a while, but he now sends this report.

"Dear Sam:
    "In a way that almost no one would have predicted three weeks ago [ie mid April], the political news of the past weeks has been dominated by two sequences: one initiated by Barack Obama's comments on same-sex marriage, and the other initiated by a proposed Super-PAC ad about Reverend Wright.

  "What has struck you about each sequence?  

  "And -- bonus questions -- how much do you think this was a planned move by the President, as opposed to getting out of the corner in which VP Biden's comments had painted him? And, what about that Cranbrook haircut story?"

   "Dear Jim:
   "Both sequences remind us how fast the political grounds have shifted on social issues, money and media.   I was particularly struck by Republicans' attempts to say as little as possible about the issue of marriage equality after President Obama's speech.  Rather than attacking the premise of Obama's statement, Romney supporters called it a smokescreen to divert attention from the economy.  An important tipping point has been reached on gay rights.  Once Democrats were divided over crime and welfare; now Republicans are divided over gay rights.   

   "Of course the economy is a bigger issue this year than gay marriage, but if there were votes to be won on this issue with a strong national stand, you can be sure the Romney campaign would go after them.  Romney, though he adhered to his conviction that marriage is between a man and a woman, did not oppose a same-sex couple's right to adopt, or any other rights, and he was careful to avoid any outright attacks on gays in the military during the primaries.

  "After Obama's declaration, Republican pollster Jan van Lohuizen rushed out a memo to warn Republican officials that the pace of change for support of gay rights was accelerating.  Voters of every age and party are getting more supportive, and every year, new voters (who are most likely to support gay rights) are entering the electorate, while older voters (who are least likely) are leaving it.  

  "The success of North Carolina's Amendment One aside, the activist energy and commitment are clearly on the pro-marriage equality side.   If they care intensely about this issue, independent and young voters are likely to be closer to Obama than Romney.  

  "The Romney camp will have some very intense negotiations with Rick Santorum before their convention.  I am starting to think that the more orthodox elements of the religious right are in the same position within the Republican party that the unions were in with Democrats in the 70s and 80s.   Santorum's base is a dwindling portion of the country, but it is still big enough to carry a lot of caucuses and primaries and give him a shot in 2016 if he fights to keep his issue leadership alive.  How do you attack gay rights in Red states without losing votes from gay rights supporters in battleground states?

  "Now, as for the Bonus Question:

  "Whether or not Vice President Biden spoke too soon, it was clear the president had to do something before the Democratic Convention or risk being the target of embarrassing protests.  Secretary of Education Arne Duncan  had already chimed in to support gay marriage, an important reminder that incumbents simply cannot run as coherent and disciplined a campaign as challengers.

  "I cannot believe that Biden's comment was planned, or that Obama's interview would have included the subject otherwise.  This White House has not been proactive on this issue in general, and I'm sure they expected a lot more push-back than they've received."

Now you know. Previously in the Ask Dr. Popkin saga, see installments one, two, and three; and his book The Candidate; and my discussion of it in Obama Explained. Our next round will cover Cory Booker, Bain, et al.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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