How to Talk to Voters About Gay Marriage: Love, Not Rights

Much of the public is persuadable, but the way politicians frame the issue will be crucial to how voters respond.

When President Obama came out in support of gay marriage on Wednesday, Lanae Erickson Hatalsky was listening closely. As a researcher for the center-left think tank Third Way, she'd spent years measuring changing public attitudes on exactly this issue. She knew that for Obama to persuade voters, there was a right way and a wrong way to frame the topic.

The wrong way: Talk about marriage in terms of rights. When gay-rights advocates talk about the need for marriage as a matter of hospital visits, tax filings, and pensions, moderate voters are turned off, because that's not the role marriage plays in their own lives, Erickson Hatalsky's research has found. Comparisons with the civil rights struggle are also generally a loser; they only make people think about the differences, rather than the similarities, between gays and African Americans.

The right way: Talk about love and commitment. That's the way most people see their own marriages or those around them, and the idea that gays should be able to commit to one another is a powerful one.

As public debate over gay marriage continues to swirl in the wake of Obama's shift, how he and other politicians talk about the issue will be crucial in determining how the public responds. Because while there are hard-core, determined supporters and opponents of gay marriage -- about 30 percent of the public on each side -- there's also a vast, mushy middle of 40-plus percent that's not firmly for or against allowing gays to marry. Their feelings are conflicted, unresolved -- and susceptible to persuasion.

That middle segment of the population "is going to be listening to how the president and his surrogates are talking about marriage," Erickson Hatalsky said. "The country's attention is focused on this in a way it hasn't ever been before."

In the past, as an opponent of gay marriage, Obama had sometimes approached the issue in what Erickson Hatalsky considers the wrong way. Even when he came out on the side of gay-marriage proponents, he did so with language that tended to alienate moderates, as when his campaign issued this statement on this week's anti-gay marriage initiative in North Carolina: "The president has long opposed divisive and discriminatory efforts to deny rights and benefits to same-sex couples. That's what the North Carolina ballot initiative would do," the statement said. (The initiative passed Tuesday by more than 20 percentage points.)

By contrast, in his interview Wednesday with ABC's Robin Roberts, Obama took a different tack.

"I had hesitated on gay marriage, in part, because I thought civil unions would be sufficient," Obama said. "That that was something that would give people hospital visitation rights and other elements that we take for granted .... But ... when I think about members of my own staff who are incredibly committed, in monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together. When I think about those soldiers or airmen or marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf, and yet feel constrained, even now that Don't Ask, Don't Tell is gone, because they're not able to commit themselves in a marriage. At a certain point, I've just concluded that for me, personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married."

Erickson Hatalsky couldn't have asked for a better illustration: The president himself was saying that when he thought of marriage in terms of the legal rights involved, he was inclined to just support a functional equivalent -- civil unions. It was the idea of commitment that made marriage itself seem necessary.

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

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