Gay Marriage Fight a Risk for Obama, But Romney's Stance Is Out of Step with America

The president has taken a stand that could hurt him electorally, but his opponent's views on the issue are also out of sync with voters.

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A patron at New York's Stonewall Inn watches the news of Obama's reversal on gay marriage. / AFP-Getty Images

A couple of days ago, when President Obama's official position was that he was personally opposed to gay marriage but "evolving," presumably in a favorable direction, his stance was judged to be rather weaselly but probably politically expedient. Sure, it drew grumbles from gay-rights activists and liberals, this line of thinking went, but it was worth it to prevent Rust Belt white evangelicals and Southern black pastors from whipping up opposition to Obama based on an explicit declaration of support.

It follows, then, that Obama's admission Wednesday that he favors gay marriage is politically inexpedient -- though Republicans insist it remains weaselly, coming as it does the day after North Carolinians voted in favor of a constitutional amendment banning gay unions, and on the heels of days of political pressure after Vice President Biden's comments in a Sunday interview that he favored "the same exact rights" for married gay couples.

Polling bears out the notion of political risk for Obama. Though the population as a whole is trending toward favoring legal gay marriage, those who actually vote are a different story, and voters in swing states are still less favorably disposed toward the issue. The landslide vote in North Carolina -- the 31st state that has passed such a ballot measure -- is a stark reminder that electorally, gay marriage is still far from a winner.

At the same time, though, support for civil unions tends to run higher than support for gay marriage, as solid majorities think gay couples should be afforded some sort of legal recognition. In a CBS News/New York Times poll taken in February, 40 percent supported legal marriage, another 23 percent supported non-marriage civil unions, and just 31 percent said there should be no legal recognition of gay relationships. The new North Carolina measure bans gay unions, but polls showed most of the state's voters didn't realize this and largely approved of civil unions.

In this, Obama's opponent, Mitt Romney, has thus also taken a politically inexpedient position: He opposes not just gay marriage but civil unions as well. The stance was highlighted on Wednesday, when even as Obama was making headlines for changing his stance, Romney was campaigning in Colorado. The night before, Republicans in the Colorado state house had used procedural tactics to block a civil-unions bill on the last day of the legislative session. The bill was thought to have the votes to pass, but the Republican speaker shut down the session rather than allow it to come up for a vote.

Romney fielded several questions on the issue in local interviews. "I do not favor marriage between people of the same gender, and I do not favor civil unions if they are identical to marriage other than by name," he reiterated.

In this, Romney's stance is to the right of even many Republicans, as the Obama campaign pointed out in a video that features George W. Bush voicing support for civil unions. But the legislative tussle in Colorado shows that hard-core opponents are just as determined to keep civil unions from becoming legal as they are to block gay marriage, even though they're on much shakier public ground. Romney is still in the process of shoring up his support among social conservatives in the wake of the bruising primary -- it was just Monday that he was finally, grudgingly endorsed by Rick Santorum -- meaning he's likely to continue to be pressed on cultural issues such as this one in a way that does him no favors with the general electorate.

There is a hypothetical middle ground on gay unions, a politically safe position that would be likely to offend the least amount of voters. It is, in fact, the position Obama held until recently -- support for civil unions, stopping short of full marriage equality. But now that Obama has shifted, neither candidate occupies this middle ground. Perhaps they're both to be commended for taking a stand rather than cautiously triangulating. But if Obama has taken a politically risky stance on gay marriage, Romney has, too.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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